America has no fire drill for economic uncertainty. What is going to happen today, April 1st, in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, when everyone's rent, mortgages, and bills are due? (more…)
My friend Maureen Herman (former bassist for Babes in Toyland) is writing a book called "It's a Memoir, Motherfucker." Here's an excerpt in which she gives her account of living life with an invisible disability and how those who do not suffer can best support those in their lives who do. — Mark
I think when the chasm between who you really are and who people think you are is too wide, that's where true despair lives. It makes you feel so literally alone, to feel you are the only one who knows you. Loneliness of being unknown, that is the dullest, greyest, flattest, and most overwhelming of voids a human can experience. Prolonged periods of that dehydrate your soul. They may be biochemical, delusional, or situational, or some combination thereof, but what I do know is that at some point, it is literal agony.
Short term gratification fills the gap. It gets you through. When people tell you how much you've accomplished, and what great things lie before you, it sounds like the teacher talking in the Charlie Brown cartoons. Blah blah blah. It means nothing. Some of us have minds live with no sense of the long game. So when people ask how someone could kill themselves when they had done such great things and had the world at their feet, I understand how they could. You don't take any of that into account. It's meaningless. Your only reality is how you feel right now, and when it is that deafening void, and no drink or drug or relationship or amount of positive attention can mute it, it feels permanent.
I feel it sometimes. Living with Major Depressive Disorder, Complex-PTSD, and being in recovery from addiction and alcoholism means I sometimes feel the wave of grey permanence come on. But through years of AA meetings, psychotherapy, biochemical psychiatric treatment, research, and writing, I am sometimes able to watch these episodes as an observer, knowing that somehow these slides of negativity got inserted into my mind's slideshow. I understand that it will be a drag to watch them, to go through the thoughts and feel like they're mine. But I'm lucky to have learned that I am not my thoughts. I forget it sometimesall the time in fact. That's why I still have to go to AA meetings. Someone in AA once shared one of the most important concepts in my recovery from everything, when she described what she called Step Zero: "We admitted we were powerless over our thoughts; that our thought life had become unmanageable." That's really the crux of it with all of my conditions.
That simple sentence eradicated many hours and years of time spent believing the thoughts I was having were reality. That doesn't mean I don't get clinically depressed. I know when to accept that depression is shutting me down, because I understand it will pass. It doesn't make the experience of it any less frustrating and debilitating. But it has been ingrained in me enough through all my forms of treatment to believe it is not a permanent state.
I guess my writing is my way of trying to bridge that gap between who I am and who people think I am or should be. Maybe that's what saves me in the end, because by constantly exposing my faults, weaknesses, and shame, they cannot fester in the dark.
Me and those like me, our lives are not linear. I do not build upon past successes or learn from past failures and mistakes. Instead, I am like a sieve, riddled with holes, life in all its emotional constancy leaking a rich, red blood, leaving me never full, never satisfied, always short of something.
But it also provides a great capacity for intense emotion and empathy. The barrage of my life experiences give me an armor with which I face the inevitable adversities of a life lived exposed. I bring sensitivity and a large capacity for expression to the table, but I also leave it littered with the undone, the failures, the broken promises, and an inability to retain any constancy of well-being. I only live in the short term reliefs I can collect like flowers before they wilt. I often live in the short terms horrors of my mind that cause me to focus, razor-like, on immediate relief. If we cannot find it, non-existence seems a rational solution.
To understand that, you have to believe me when I tell you that it is not about feeling sad. No, it is the feeling, the certainty of an eternity living in futility. With every congratulations and adulation you almost feel the universe is mocking you, and you burrow even further to hide who you really are. People like me are not on a path to success, built by logical steps. We are not encouraged by "I know you can do it" cheerleading. Let me know that it's OK if I can't do it. Let me know it's OK to not be the success and superstar that your well-intentioned support has projected onto my ravaged and fragile identity.
And the more people tell you they love you, and how great you are, the more you feel like a fraud and imposter. Your inner hypocrisy becomes intolerable. The dissonance between the world's view of you and your inner reality makes you want to turn the sound completely off. Some people do. For them it is the treatment of last resort.
When I talk about mental illness, I am not talking about low self-esteem, insecurity, or bad patches. I am talking about the recurring, periodic and unpredictable hijacking of my brain to neurological thought patterns that, over time, have worn deep grooves on my neural pathways like the favorite notes on my fretboard. I don't mean to keep going there, but it's where my fingers end up.
I think it is in the hiding that the tragedies occur. The lack of a friend who will let you be a failure, who is not a cheerleader, but rather, an objective spectator not rooting for either team. Someone who doesn't need you to be "well" or happy, or cured or better or on a logical trajectory, but will allow you to tread water until you know if you want to drown or get out of the water.
I am damaged and imperfect and will never be cured of depression. That is not a concession or defeat, it is a hard-won acceptance of my right to be psychologically different than you are. Some took as much as they could. It was literally the most they were capable of.
I have never once had a plan to commit suicide. Never, ever, ever. I would consider my suicide risk to be .0000000001%. But I have thought about the relief non-existence would bring almost daily since my twenties. It's a thought, and that's where my brain goes, like the tires on a rutted road. Can the default be changed? Yes, here and there, with great awareness and effort. And that is what my various treatments, meetings, and the right medications have brought me. But when I hear of someone who committed suicide, I don't see them as having given up. I see a member of my tribe. I see them as having given it their all, and that was all they had left.
I do not think of their exits as failures or mistakes, no matter how tragic. I must witness the magnificence of the life lived before its end, and I know that they were doing the very, very best they could. Their unique mind brought unique talents, perspectives, and humor. It's the things we all loved them for.
I say let their whole life be a triumph, that they made it as long as they did, and accomplished as much as they did. I wish people would have compassion for the choices made–even the ones that cause others pain, that seem senseless and selfish, and the ones you think, "if only this," or "if only that." If it was drugs, or addiction, or illness, or depression, or lack of treatment or the wrong meds, have the compassion to understand that they were seeking relief in that moment, and that what they did made sense for them.
None of this is to say that suicide is inevitable. But for those who are left behind with gnawing questions, pain, and guilt, know that suicide is the option when you feel you are out of options. For those suffering, whether correctly or incorrectly, they feel they have no other source of relief. Their existence is something they can control, something they can end to find the peace you have watched them struggle for their whole lives. Sometimes, as for one friend of mine, just knowing she has that option provides a comfort that actually prevents her from doing it. You need to feel like there's a way out if you can't find a way through.
I know there are loving, well-meaning people around me, But honestly, I don't feel like they understand when I do reach out. They believe they must offer advice, solutions, or fix it for you. With every action and word they are saying, "It's not OK for you to be like this. I can't love you like this. You need to get better."
I have a few rare friends that I don't have to avoid on the days when I am capable of little or nothing, because they will not try to cheerlead me into motivation. They are not driven by their own discomfort with my condition, needing me to change to suit their idea of how I should be. Instead, they accept me as I am, even when I am not doing well–especially when I am not doing well.
This is the most loving, healing thing a friend can do for a friend like me. It is exhausting to pretend I am well all the time, but if I share the truth with some people, I am barraged with advice, cures, chiding, or encouragement–the din of non-acceptance. It is the loneliest and most sorrowful thing to hear when I am depressed or in psychological pain, because I know I have to add them to the list of people not to turn to at times like this.
Gradually, your circle of support gets smaller, as mine has the past few years. There are those who think I am lazy or self-destructive, others who think I would be cured if I'd just do this or that, and some who have written me off completely as a failure and fraud. The unconditional friendships I am so lucky to have remind me that there is nothing "wrong" with me. There is only me, with all my talents, problems, successes, symptoms, diagnoses, features, and flaws, all rolled up into Mo. That helps to make the bad days just days, and helps me better see the continuum of existence that I forget so easily. The pendulum swings, and I find them at both ends.
I know some of my friends want to help at times like this, but don't understand how to help. It's not their fault. This isn't innate knowledge by any stretch. Mentally stable people respond to encouragement, consequences, and logical solutions. But it just doesn't work on some of us. In that case, chances are high they struggle with mental health stability, an addiction history, and/or trauma symptoms.
I have lost a lot of friends because of my disorders over the years, because of their frustration with their perception of my lack of progress or my failure to be symptom-free via their suggestions. I think it is worth pointing out how to be a friend to someone like me. Because feeling superunknown is a precarious existence, and largely unnecessary, I believe, if armed with a few tools of recovery, professional help, open-minded friends, and a steadfast commitment not to live in shame.
After my friend and neighbor, Michael, blew his brains out rather than be evicted from his longtime home, I went to the funeral. The priest asked if anyone wanted to say anything. A few people got up and spoke of what a tragedy and loss it was. It moved me to speak, because that's not how I remember Michael. I remember a devoted father who wanted the very best for his daughters. I remember an inventive and enthusiastic man who relished in introducing us to his favorite beach spot. So that's what I talked about. His suicide didn't erase his love for his daughters. It didn't mean he gave up on them. What I saw was a man who literally did the best he could, and it didn't go as planned. His marriage didn't work out, his job didn't work out, his dreams didn't work out. That was unacceptable in our society, and he must have felt it to his core to do what he did. Michael died from chronic expectations.
I have to wonder where these people were in the dark times, when he was clearly out of work for months and months, struggling with a bitter custody battle, and facing eviction. He did not need them at the funeral. He needed them to be OK with his abject failure. Instead, he was too ashamed to live.
Embracing failure and struggle doesn't enable it. It merely acknowledges its normalcy, and is accepting of mental health diversity. Being free of mental health disorders doesn't make you more successful or better than me. It primarily means you struggle far less to accomplish the same things, that everyday tasks are easy to you.
Someone with a disability isn't a failure for not being able to use stairs the same way you do. They adapt. They get resources, they do the best they can. But they will never walk again. Your encouragement for them to walk like you do will only make them feel horrible, gravely misunderstood, and certain that you are no friend to them. And they would be right, that is an unhealthy person to be around. That's why I had to detach from a lot of people I now miss.
As my three best psychiatrists all impressed upon me, mental health is not the state of being symptom-free. It is the state of acceptance and real-life adjustment to your disorders and symptoms. There was once a powerful statement I read from my longtime psychologist. In a letter supporting my need for assistance she wrote, "Ms. Herman puts a great deal of effort into trying to appear normal." I still do that. It is so hard not to do it, because then everyone doesn't get so upset.
I'm not typical, average, or normal, but I do my best. That is not enough for some. Many people focus the blame on some perceived and assumed flaw I must have, not considering, and not aware, that my brain is sometimes randomly hijacked. I can write a chapter in one sitting that requires almost no editing. I can also spend two weeks on a chapter, and fail to complete it or even have a coherent draft.
The missing ingredient is not capability or lack of a life skill, it is consistent inconsistency. Normal people rely on their moods being stable, their thoughts being their own, their long-term plans coming along in satisfying stages. Now pretend you get kidnapped, randomly, every few weeks. You're dumped back into your life, and have to somehow pick up where you left off. It takes time. Sometimes you're just getting oriented when it happens again. Sometimes you go a long time without getting kidnapped, and your life is going really well, you're getting a lot done, and you think you'll never get kidnapped again. Then one day, you do. For two weeks. By the time you get back, all the progress you've made is unraveled by inertia, lost time, and confusion.
This is what it's like for me, living with mental illness. At some point, you have to work around the kidnappings, or you're just going to destroy yourself trying to make up for lost time. You have to accept that your output is different than a person who doesn't get kidnapped periodically. You don't know why you're being targeted for kidnapping and others aren't. You have friends who do, and you commiserate.
But again, the distinction is the chasm of what people think your life should be like and what it's really like, and how much shame you have about it. What if you had to hide the kidnappings from everybody or you'd lose your job, or your relationship, or your reputation? It is, after all, pretty embarrassing to keep getting kidnapped. I mean, you must be doing something wrong to attract the kidnappers, right?
Lying in bed because you want to, and lying in bed because you have no choice are two different experiences. One is restful, the other is torture. They are not "days off." They are days missing, days lost, days stolen from us, and we have no control over when it happens, or when it will end and we can return to our lives. Lying in bed is frustrating and boring as fuck and the tape playing in my head is generally agonizing.
Now that my mental illnesses are treated and I am more stable, my experience is different, but I am not cured. I don't lose weeks very often anymore, in fact I rarely have severe symptoms for more than a few days in a row, and they are far more infrequent. Still, once in awhile, a two-week hit job comes, usually in the fall and winter, when Seasonal Affective Disorder comes into the mix, and there's nothing I can do about it.
When I am doing well for long stretches, some friends and family proclaim me cured, saying "you can go off your meds now!" as though that is the ultimate goal, to get off the meds that have brought my mind relief and balance. The well-meaning will become accustomed to your improved productivity, and when a mild episode comes, they will ask if you're eating right, or wonder if you're still sober.
They don't understand the constancy, the inevitability of my symptoms. That's OK. But that's why I am telling you what it's like. So maybe more people would understand that their quiet, aligned presence can be the best support to those in their life who suffer from depression or other mental health disorders. Because it's exhausting not to be allowed to experience our lives openly as things hit us, or to have to hide our range of emotions to fall in the normal range when interacting with others. I will never cured of depression, but I am doing all I can to treat it, including tell you what it's like for us. So when you ask me how I am, and I say, "Never better," know that I am telling you the truth.
Maureen Herman is a writer and former bassist of Babes in Toyland. Her book, "It's a Memoir, Motherfucker" is due out on Flatiron Press in Fall 2020. You can follow her writing and video blogs at patreon.com/maureenherman. She lives in Marseilles, Illinois with her daughter.
People make mistakes. They commit crimes. Sometimes they pull their erect dick out and start masturbating in front of female colleagues. Louis C.K. recently performed for the first time since confirming he did exactly that to a number of women over a period of years. Was his return to the stage, as they say in comedy, "too soon?" Outside of legal recourse, how do we deal with perpetrators of sexual misdeeds, abuse, harassment, and assault in the long haul?
As the news of his return broke, I could almost hear women across the country face-palming themselves over the fact that he appeared unannounced and unexpectedly in front of an unsuspecting audience who had not given their consent. Social media became a biopsy of the strange cultural crossroads the #MeToo stories have brought us to. But this time there was more of a split across gender lines. The backlash about Louis' comeback were mostly female voices. The support for him, feeling he'd already paid a fair price, were mostly male voices.
Comedian Michael Ian Black tweeted a message addressing the friction to his almost two million followers:
"The #MeToo movement is incredibly powerful and important and vital. One next step, among many steps, has to be figuring out a way for the men who are caught up in it to find redemption."
The #metoo movement is incredibly powerful and important and vital. One next step, among many steps, has to be figuring out a way for the men who are caught up in it to find redemption.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) August 28, 2018
It's significant that the "men who are caught up in it" are the perpetrators of abuse, assault, and harassment. Women do not need to roll up their sleeves and get to work creating a framework for offenders to return to society. It is not up to us to give them a way back in. There is no one stopping the creative powerhouse that is Louis C.K. from trailblazing a pathway to redemption. He is not owed a situation to be created for him.
#MeToo is called a movement for a reason. Like all social change, it is messy and hard. Movements are historically led by those the injustice or oppression impacts most. Like many women in America, I can raise my hand to qualify as a member of the #MeToo movement multiple times.
Maybe it doesn't seem like that big of a deal, someone displaying their junk. Maybe it even seems funny – certainly not hurtful like real sexual abuse. No one's touching you, after all. But when a man you know, trust, and respect pulls their erect dick out of their pants and starts masturbating in front of you out of nowhere, especially if that man is in a position of power, it can be life-changing. I didn't realize someone pulling their dick out could be so impactful until it happened to me.
I'd just moved to New York and was staying with a loved and trusted relative in his Upper West Side apartment until I landed a job and a place of my own. One night he came in and stood over the air mattress I was staying on, and started masturbating. And talking about masturbating. I froze. It continued. I wondered what might happen next. Was it going to escalate? I got the impression that my discomfort was part of what he enjoyed. That's not about sex. That's about power.
I had nowhere to go and he knew it. Powerless. Vulnerable. Confused. I didn't know what to say or do. I was shocked. The next day he acted like nothing happened. So I packed up and began couch surfing until I found a job and apartment of my own. But there weren't always couches to crash on. It wasn't easy to explain my predicament to friends and colleagues, and no one in my family believed me when I asked for help. I was homeless because someone pulled their dick out.
When I read the New York Times story that forced Louis C.K.'s confession, I recognized the name of one of the women who came forward: Abby Schachner. I had seen her one-woman show a few years back and met her afterwards. She was brilliant, wicked smart and hilarious. I immediately wrote a glowing review of her show and told everyone I could to see it. I friended her on Facebook. I remember thinking she should have her own TV show. She was that good.
As the Louis C.K. story unraveled in the news and through Abby's Facebook posts, I learned that she chose to abandon her pursuit of a comedy career after her encounter with him, determining she wouldn't be taken seriously as a female comedian. I was enraged. While others were bemoaning the loss of Louis C.K. in their living rooms, I thought what a complete and utter loss it was for all of us that Abby Schachner's career path was altered. Because someone pulled their dick out.
Louis C.K. wielded great power in the comedy business, and that is why it matters if, how, and when he comes back, but most importantly it matters if he demonstrates that he comprehends his impact on these women, the damage that he caused, and has taken steps to change – not just slinked away for a few months. It's #TimesUp not #TimeOut. Louis C.K. exposing himself is not just a live version of a dick pic (another thing nobody wants). It's about control, and how it impacts the people he chooses to target. In his case, female colleagues.
Louis C.K.'s unannounced performance echoed his misdeeds; forcing something on an unprepared public. What's glaringly lacking in both situations is consent. He controls what's going on. His terms. No consideration of potential damage. Deal with it.
You can forgive someone for doing something without giving them to the opportunity to do it again. That's what setting boundaries is. And in my opinion, Louis C.K. did not respect the boundary that existed in those moments with various women, and he blew right through the boundary society had imposed on him by barging into a comedy club and giving the audience no choice. But Michael Ian Black's tweets were asking us to consider what that boundary really was.
"My empathy isn't for Louis. It's for the recognition that we're in a cultural moment in which some men who do terrible things have no pathway for redemption. That lack of a pathway creates a situation in which we are casting people out but not giving them a way back in."
My empathy isn't for Louis. It's for the recognition that we're in a cultural moment in which some men who do terrible things have no pathway for redemption. That lack of a pathway creates a situation in which we are casting people out but not giving them a way back in. 1/2 https://t.co/9o4U8TfniW
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) August 28, 2018
Though finding a pathway for the redemption of "some men" is not our burden or responsibility, that doesn't mean I don't have some ideas. It's complex and tangled.
The seemingly unforgivable are sometimes redeemed and rehabilitated. Sometimes. It depends. That's why there are parole boards, for instance. Time itself does not guarantee change. As a former addict, I understand mistakes, misdeeds, hiding it, lying about it, getting caught, having consequences, and then seeking resolution through making amends.
In AA there is something called a "living amends." The idea is that, though you can't repair the specific damage you caused, you can demonstrate your understanding of the impact you had and do something related that makes a positive difference – volunteering at a domestic violence shelter for example, donating money to women's advocacy groups, or changing the choices you made that got you into trouble in the first place. It doesn't fix the original problem, but it is experiential and gives them empathetic perspective. It also demonstrates the person is actively seeking to change, and that's something people need to witness before they give you the car keys back.
So what's the litmus test? If this was about racist behavior instead of sexist behavior, would it be enough if they promised to stop being racist and not do it again? I think the pathway for redemption, or at least the template for it, already exists: former KKK members who put that life behind them and are committed to transforming others. Former gang members do it. Former drug addicts. The onus of demonstrating true reflection, empathy, change, and humility is on the perpetrator.
I know someone who killed someone in a drunk driving accident. She cannot resuscitate the victim or directly take away the pain she caused. But to this day, she is dedicated to helping other alcoholics get sober, not only through telling her story, but in time spent working with alcoholics one on one. My life is an example of one she changed.
There's a reason that someone telling a roomful of people they killed someone drunk driving is more impactful than a PSA, your mom, or law enforcement telling you not to drink and drive. We could really use Louis C.K.'s voice right now. Given the destructive and dangerous impact of toxic masculinity and entitled sexual predation on our society, it would be really great, for example, to see Louis C.K. begin an awareness project where he shared openly about the problem from the perspective of someone who helped create the problem.
Like my friend who killed someone drunk driving, the people that might listen to him are the ones who might not otherwise be reached. Instead of preaching to the converted, he might actually be able to disarm men with that mindset enough that they would take a look at their own biases, behavior, history, and beliefs, and, like I did after hearing my friend's story, they might be able to make lasting change. Real change. Change that could eventually reach enough men that it could turn the tide – like the flutter of a butterfly wing becomes a tornado.
Instead of appearing at an unannounced show telling jokes, meekly trying to garner support by "starting small," what if he leveraged the same power, talent, and connections that he used to silence and discredit his accusers and applied it to the problem of toxic masculinity in America? I think you would be surprised how quickly allies, male and female, would be supportive of him.
Nobody wants to see the sexual predator version of a racist caught on video later decrying their behavior and begging for their job back. But I think people would be more willing to open the gate for Louis C.K. and other men who got called out if they demonstrated any kind of enlightenment about their behavior. It's a generalization, but in the same way men tend look to their partners to fix relationships when they are the ones who screwed up, they shouldn't depend on some lady on Twitter to learn the right way to return to society after pulling their dick out and masturbating in front of someone. They need to man up and come to the realization and solution themselves. They need to act on it.
Instead of just measuring redemption by time spent on the stool of shame, common ground can be found if men recognize their damaging behavior, admit it plainly and clearly without caveat, and take sincere steps to make amends – and not just so they can resume their careers. We will be here, I will be here if anyone wants to ask what they can do. But what would be even better, what would be really, really great, is if men figured out how to solve this for themselves. That is the only kind of surprise we'd really like to see.
Top image: CC0 Public Domain/pxhere
Other images: Maureen Herman
Opioid overdoses now kill more Americans every year than guns, breast cancer, or car accidents. 20 million Americans suffer from addiction to alcohol, illicit, or prescription drugs. On the second anniversary of Prince's death from fentanyl overdose last weekend, the President of the United States demonstrated a deep ignorance of this medical epidemic, calling someone he considers an alcoholic and addict a "drunk/drugged up loser."
Days later we learn that Dr. Ronny Jackson, the physician Trump nominated to lead the country's largest healthcare system, the Veterans Administration, is known to have a drinking problem and is nicknamed "The Candyman" because of his reputation for freely distributing controlled substances to White House staff. With 1 in 10 soldiers seen by the VA for problems with alcohol or drugs – the majority as an outgrowth of being treated for chronic pain – Jackson was a dangerously ignorant choice.
Both the president's regressive drug policy and his impulsive social media outbursts are conflicting, misinformed, and poorly executed, so his recent post about addicts being "losers" must seem pedestrian to most. In the same tweet he also managed to insult a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and engage in thinly veiled witness tampering before taking off for a round of golf while his wife attended Barbara Bush's funeral. Numbed and spotty outcries ensued, and we moved along to the next week's insults. It became just more white noise.
Leadership and policy drive the public's attitudes about addiction and these opinions have very real consequences in people's lives, as it did for Prince. After his death, I wrote a Boing Boing piece about the influence these negative perspectives about addiction had on the way Prince pursued treatment options for a pain management regimen that became a dependency, and ultimately an addiction. That's a common risk in treating chronic pain with opioids. Prince used back channels to get help. He used cover stories. People covered for him. In other words, he and everyone around him behaved as though addiction was something to be ashamed of. As a result, treatment was delayed because concealment was prioritized. The California specialist in addiction and pain management who was privately deployed to Paisley Park to begin Prince's treatment with Suboxone arrived that morning to a dead body.
Prince may not have been happy about the need for addiction treatment, but he knew it was time, and he had a close enough call on the plane to ponder the thought that his addiction could end his life. Clearly, he wanted to live. But he didn't want anyone to know. Sadly, addiction is particularly lethal in the case of performing artists with egos and identities whose destruction could mean the end of their careers. Hide it, hide it, hide it. Hide it from you. Hide it from us.
From my perspective, lumping Prince into the bin of rock stars done in by overdose, dismissing the tragedy as another example of excess and bad choices, is not only inaccurate, it perpetuates dangerous attitudes and ignorance about chronic pain and addiction. Every medical treatment has inherent risks. So why the shame?
The shame has long been broadcast from the top down. Since the Nixon era, the trend of drug policy drifted away from rehabilitative treatment towards criminalization and punishment. The result? The prison population jumped by 1000% in the last 40 years, giving rise to the for-profit private prison industry. Those imprisoned for alcohol and drug-related offenses became a reliable and steady supply of bodies for their bottom line.
Obama finally set guidelines curtailing the use of for-profit prisons, which have no financial incentive for treating prisoners incarcerated for drug use offenses, but now Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reversing those guidelines and indulging his personal fetish for rebooting the war on drugs and criminalizing addiction. In general, the current administration appears to be clueless about the epidemic.
This was immediately evident after the election when Trump praised Philippine President Duterte's drug policy, which primarily involves murdering addicts and dealers on the street, saying he was "doing a good job." He even invited Duterte to the White House. There was little uproar. In the social media hellscape at the time, anyone taking offense to negative attitudes towards addicts would probably get them called a "snowflake." But it's not political correctness that's upsetting. When the new president-elect is lauding the murder of people with a specific medical condition as good drug policy, it's broadcasting dangerous myths about addiction from the very top down in a terrifying way.
For most Americans, especially those who continue to insist that addiction is a choice and not a medical condition, there was a big piece of news that came out a week after the 2016 election proving otherwise. But it got buried and didn't capture much attention from the American public, perhaps because our media diet had been so dominated and infested with pussy grabbing, email servers, anchor babies, and the minutiae of every pendulum swing from the alt-right to the alt-left. Post election, it just got louder and increasingly exhausting.
On November 16, 2016, the Surgeon General released the results of an exhaustive and comprehensive study, in a report called "Facing Addiction in America: The U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health." Though it contained hundreds of newsworthy findings and data, one stood out: addiction was reclassified as a chronic brain disorder. It was not a choice, a character flaw, or weakness. It wasn't caused by bad parents or drug dealers or laziness or video games or stupidity. The substance being abused didn't cause the disorder, it revealed it. Addiction was caused by atypical reward system wiring in some people's brains.
"For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing," Murthy said in the report. "It is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes and cancer." –-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
The unsexy "Alcoholism and Addiction reclassified as chronic brain disorder" headline probably got skipped over in everyone's juicy news feeds at the time. Facebook was still busy spoon-feeding everyone Russian propaganda, and it wasn't trending on Twitter the way #MAGA, #NeverTrump, #LockHerUp, and all the misspelled #BasketofDeplorables hashtags did. In a nation where there are now more people with substance abuse disorders than people with cancer, it was terrible timing for such revolutionary and significant news that impacted so many lives: addiction is a brain disorder.
Here is a short list of some common brain disorders. Which ones do you think it is reasonable to be ashamed of or killed for?
We used to think mental illness was caused by demonic possession, pneumonia was caused by "night air," that your stomach would explode if you ate Pop Rocks and drank soda at the same time, that you can get warts from holding a frog or toad, and that dipping people's hands In warm water while they sleep will make them wet the bed. Add addiction to the list of things we didn't get right until the realities of science were fully applied.
Some people will never be convinced. They believe it's another excuse for someone's bad choices and need for their help. But whether we realize it or not, the public has skin in the game and needs to wise up. Ignorance about addiction is not only dangerous to those who might suffer from it, it's costly to every American. According to the National Institutes of Health, addiction, whether it's alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription opioids, costs the public $520.5 billion dollars a year in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care. The problem is more than hurt feelings of "drunks and drugged up losers." It's $520.5 BILLION DOLLARS.
•That's the amount of our current federal deficit.
•That's the entire budget of the U.S. Department of Education nine times over.
•That's the cost of 25 F-16 Fighter Jets.
•That's the entire valuation of Facebook, depending on the news day.
It's a lot of damn money that could change American life in a huge way if it weren't being spent on the consequences of millions living with an untreated brain disorder. Instead, common wisdom about addiction is that "you people just need to behave." It's like telling a nearsighted person they don't need glasses, they just need to look a little harder. The myths persist despite the evidence.
From the LA Times:
The 426-page report, titled "Facing Addiction in America," was modeled on the 1964 surgeon general's report on smoking and health, which first linked cigarettes to cancer and led to a successful national campaign against tobacco use.
Murthy described the report as "a new call to action." It lays out recommendations for elected officials, the medical community, law enforcement and the public to improve the way addiction is treated.
More than 20 million Americans suffer from substance abuse disorders, far more than are diagnosed with cancer, but only about 10% receive treatment, according to the report. Murthy said that stigma surrounding addiction dissuades people from getting help and the report repeatedly referred to addiction as "a chronic brain disease.
When Trump fired the Surgeon General a few months later, the Surgeon General's "call to action" was essentially killed along with the hope that the American public would finally understand that addiction was not a choice but a disorder present even when the substance of abuse was not being used. Instead, it's a largely unknown revelation.
An eye disorder affects your vision. A skin disorder affects your complexion. But a brain disorder affects your personality – your thoughts, mood, behavior, and feelings, so it's far more complicated to detect and treat. Also, let's face it, we judge people and hold them responsible for their choices. I don't want to over-simplify a 426-page report, but basically, when an addiction-disordered brain finds a substance – or activity – that gives them relief from their symptoms, they are self-medicating. But the best treatment plan for a brain disorder is not a DIY application of whatever's on the drink menu at TGIFriday's.
However, once the alcohol or drugs hit a disordered brain, it triggers the phenomenon of craving, they lose the normal capacity to choose. Can they still choose? Sure. But the reward system in their brain is telling them that they need to drink or use more drugs as if they needed it for survival – a primal instinct. "Choosing" to stop is like choosing not to run from a lion chasing you. It goes against every driving instinct in your body and mind. It's not the same kind of choice a regular person feels about whether or not to drink or do drugs. That's why it's called a disorder. It's fucked up and it sucks.
As an addict with 15 years of physical sobriety, I can assure you, the problems with my thinking and decision making didn't begin when I started drinking and taking drugs and they didn't end when I stopped. An alcoholic or addict – someone with this type of wiring – who is not using alcohol or drugs is still an alcoholic and an addict. Physical sobriety from whatever substance is being abused doesn't cure the problem, because the brain is still programmed for pursuit of the biochemical reaction, the short-term gratification, regardless of consequences.
This is why people need treatment and many go to AA meetings long after they stop drinking or using drugs, in fact especially after they stop. It's their brain – their thought life – that needs continued treatment. I am one of those who attends AA meetings, and they are filled with people from all walks of life, races, genders, economic and education backgrounds. My first sponsor was a kindergarten teacher. These are regular people that didn't know they were walking around with a brain glitch that, left untreated, could destroy their lives. That's why the Surgeon General's report is such a revelation.
From LA Times:
[U.S. Surgeon General] Murthy said that stigma surrounding addiction dissuades people from getting help. Some of the top government scientists studying addiction showed an audience of advocates, recovering addicts and family members brain scans that they said made clear addicts were suffering from a legitimate illness rather than moral weakness.
"Science tells us clearly that addiction is a disease of the brain," Murthy said.
I know Trump name-calling someone on Twitter isn't news. But this report on addiction should still be big news. When we see Trump mock a disabled reporter we are rightly outraged, but when we hear him refer to someone who might have a substance abuse problem as a "drunk/drugged up loser," it doesn't get much of a reaction. Just Trump being Trump. That's a bad sign. A really bad sign o' the times.
I met Jackie Fox of the Runaways in 2015 after I wrote an article on Boing Boing in response to her rape disclosure and the treatment it was getting in the press. Jackie was drugged and raped in front of a large group of people at a party. Jason Cherkis, an investigative reporter for Huffington Post, wrote an exhaustively researched piece about the rape, interviewed many witnesses, and outlined the complex reasons Jackie was coming forward 40 years later. Her story was not only rock solid–she had witnesses. Still, her former bandmate, Joan Jett, put out a statement essentially calling Jackie's rape part of a "bizarre relationship."
I was angry watching the public tide turn against Jackie after Joan's dismissive statement was released, especially as a fellow assault survivor. Around the same time, more Cosby women were coming forward, and I was disgusted with the default reaction of seeing women doubted, disparaged, and denigrated. I wrote the piece, Neil Gaiman tweeted it out, and people took note. And so, my friendship with Jackie Fox began. It was coincidental that I was also the bassist in an all-female band, Babes in Toyland, but it gave us a natural camaraderie.
So when Jackie invited me to go to the recent #MeTooMarch in Hollywood, I was honored to join her. The #MeToo movement had sprung up amid the Weinstein scandal after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged others to share their sexual abuse, assault, and harassment experiences with the hashtag #MeToo, and rightly credited Tarana Burke of Just BE Inc., founder of an advocacy organization for girls of color based in Brooklyn, for the original use of the phrase.
The response was overwhelming and sustained, the numbers heartbreakingly staggering. The voices got louder and louder. Women organized, and the #MeToo march was announced in Los Angeles.
The morning of the march, we made signs at Jackie's house with red duct tape. Mine said, "I'm Telling," and hers named her offenders, "Kim, Jerry…" the ellipses representing the names from other encounters that could not fit on the sign. Most women have more than one story. That is the reality that the #MeToo campaign brought to light. The signal to perpetrators that they would be held accountable felt like sweet justice I never thought I'd see. On social media, men were starting to stand up for women, too. My white male friend, actor Jim Turner, posted something refreshing on Facebook:
"I know it's not good to stereotype but…if you're white & male, why don't you sit down and shut up for a while? Sit down right where you are, and shut up, and don't grope anybody, or shoot anybody or, actually do anything for a long, long time. Just stop. Stop whatever it is you're doing. You're very clearly the bulk of the problem. Stop embarrassing, and molesting, and killing people. If you're white and male and not doing those things, it's okay to just sit still and shut up anyway. Let some other people see if they can straighten things out and fix some shit without you (and I include me) fucking it up even more. Right now: Sit down. Shut up. Keep your hands to yourself."
It was starting to feel like a revolution. So, when we gathered at the CNN building in Hollywood, the mood was triumphant and I felt energized. Multiple speakers echoed the defiant sentiment that the crowd vocally shared, "Enough." To be out and open and vocal felt empowering to me. The culture was shifting, and those who had been protected by secrecy were falling like dominoes. We held our signs high. The group marched to Hollywood Boulevard and assembled again for the closing rally. We were in high spirits and had a great spot right in front, just behind the press line.
The rally opened with a group of women doing a "healing" ceremony. In it, the speaker said that on some realm our spirits "chose" to have these experiences, and they made us who we are today. She summed up the "prayer" by saying:
"Everything that we go through, it's the same thing. We have scars, but that means that we're healing, so we have to accept the healing. Everybody, each and every one of you, myself included, has gone through some horrible painful things, whether we lost a mother, a brother, a father, or just experienced something that maybe we felt shouldn't have been done. But we have to remember that we have come here on this planet as a human being, and our spirit form has decided to come here and we chose to experience things because that is what makes our spirits stronger. All the inflicted pain, it helps us to be stronger. So keep that in mind and move forward and allow yourself to be healed.
After she said the word "chose," Jackie let out an audible moan as though she'd been punched in the stomach, and I buried my head in my hands. I was completely offended and deflated upon hearing this said to a group of women who had survived sexual harassment and assault. We were standing right in front. Jackie and I are not known for our poker faces when riled. Our disagreement was apparent to the speaker from the stage, and she went back to the microphone and addressed Jackie:
Did you have something that you wanted to say?
But it was not delivered as an invitation, more as a challenge. I could tell Jackie very much wanted to say something, but she did not want to hijack the rally, so she said, "No." Her face reflected her frustration. Instead of leaving the stage, the speaker singled her out for a spiritual lesson and said, "I'm trying to bring healing. Our community needs healing now. It's time to leave the anger behind and allow ourselves to heal."
Being silent was the furthest thing from healing for Jackie, and went against everything she stood for. To make matters worse, the speaker then insinuated that Jackie did not know how to heal properly, and said:
I have a song called "Dolores," about a young woman who was raped. You might want to listen to it. It helps us to heal. That's what we need. And I pray for your healing, ma'am.
Jackie, wearing a pink hat that said "Trouble" on it, turned to me and said, "Great. Thoughts and prayers. I thought we were here to change things." In fairness, I realize the speaker didn't know the discography of two middle-aged women standing in the crowd, but as bassists and songwriters in all-female bands from two different eras, we were annoyed as fuck. For me, seeing this person lecture Jackie, who wrote songs for The Runaways, who stood up two years ago when no one was saying "me too," and telling her to use music to heal made me cringe–especially since every time Jackie hears a Runaways song it is literally a trigger for her.
But that's not what upset us. What we were incensed about was someone telling a crowd of sexual assault survivors at a protest rally–some coming out publicly for the first time–that this was not a time for anger. Telling a survivor how to feel and how to heal was not just insulting, it was damaging. We knew that blaming ourselves for our sexual assaults by being told we co-authored our spiritual blueprints with a male deity, whom the speaker had referenced as "grandfather" of all things, and that we had invited and planned these traumatic experiences for our earthly selves was consummate victim blaming–not to mention a stretch.
It is the same sentiment as "everything happens for a reason. No. The only "reason" I got molested at 5, had a roommate masturbate in front of me at 32, and raped at 35, was because men molested me, exposed themselves to me, and raped me. My spirit did not need rape fertilizer to grow. Jackie did not need to be drugged and raped in front of people at a party to evolve as a human. We both could have had happier, more successful lives without these experiences. They did not make us stronger. They damaged us permanently. Are we strong? Yes. But that's because of us, not our rapists.
To us, the opening healing ceremony message was literally that we asked for it. I know they were well-intentioned, but I think they got this part very wrong, and it set a terrible tone. I did not go to the #MeTooMarch for religious rituals that involve grandfather deities, probably a pretty triggering association for some attendees anyway.
No. We were there to say stop. Enough. No more. Tell. We were there to let the world know there is a reckoning, and it is now. Thankfully, all of the other speakers at the #MeToo march reflected these sentiments and were able to harness the power of the crowd's collective voice. After the opening prayer, the #MeToo march was back on target with the intention and courage of the online campaign that inspired it. We held our signs and felt the sisterhood. It felt good to be with others.
After the event, Jackie was able to express the thoughts she kept to herself after the speaker challenged her:
"I went through this over 40 years ago, and I don't feel better for having gone through it. It is something that changes who you are and damages you forever. I'm hopeful that now that it's easier to talk about, women will get the help they need more quickly, be believed, and not have to go through what I went through–that's why I'm here. I'm not here today to heal. I'm here today to stop it. Your sage burning is not going to make it OK that somebody put a hairbrush in my vagina in front of a group of people when I was 16 years old. I don't need to be told when to heal or how to heal or that it's part of my spiritual journey. I will hopefully use everything that's happened to me as growth, but I didn't need to be raped in order to grow. Let's get that out of our heads, right now."
Maybe I am making too much of one small part of what was an admittedly victorious day. But it is in nuances that these incidents happen. The slightly uncomfortable gaze from a co-worker. The exclusion from after-hours drinks with the guys, or the comments about how we look. So I think it's important to call out victim blaming at all levels, big and small, real and spiritual, especially when it is couched in shaming about "right" ways to heal. Assault and harassment are not invited by our clothes, nor our spirits. They are crimes, and we are moving into a time when they will be increasingly treated as such.
I think religion has fucked up women's rights quite enough. I appreciated the intent of the healing prayer and I am positive the organizers invited the group as a uniting gesture. But American religion is no exception when it comes to patriarchal attitudes. American culture, like all culture, has a troubled history in dealing with rape. New age appropriation of indigenous beliefs mixed with fatalistic and karmic overtones that tell us we needed and asked for our traumas in order to be whole, are dangerous beliefs. They perpetuate the myth that what men do to women and our bodies without consent is invited–and part of life.
I'm very glad I went to the #MeTooMarch. On the whole, I found it empowering. The last thing I want to do is interrupt the momentum of #MeToo. Writing this piece is not meant to take away from this important movement or where it's heading–both very good things. Which is why criticizing something so powerful is awkward and intimidating for me. But coming forward with my assault stories was awkward and intimidating, too. If there's one thing I've learned through my experiences, it's to speak up when something is wrong. Blaming a sexual assault or harassment survivor for someone else's crime, on a spiritual plane or otherwise, is dead wrong.
As my sign said, "I'm Telling," because silence is what made that crowd bigger than it needed to be in the first place. Silence protects predators and exposes other women to abusers. We've got to get it right. Victim-blaming messages like this need to be challenged if we are to truly unify and empower the millions of women who have suffered abuse, assault, and harassment. It is not their fault on any level. Enough. What I was there to symbolize as part of that crowd is that It is a dangerous time for men who are dangerous to women. That is why I marched.
My spirit is made of my laughter, my words, my solitude, my stories. It is not made up of tragedies I summoned. Those were crimes, not opportunities for growth. I grow in spite of those things, not because of them. No one chooses it, on any level, and that message was salvaged and clarified in the other speakers, especially when actress and activist Frances Fisher read Eve Ensler's letter to the marchers. Ensler, a writer, performer, activist and survivor has been a consistent and tireless advocate for the changes the #MeToo march really stood for. I will end with a part of her powerful letter, which I think distills the essence of the #MeToo movement that attracted me and so many others survivors:
"I am over women still being silent about rape because they're made to believe it's their fault, because they did something to make it happen, like wearing the wrong clothes, because they are terrified they will get fired, or won't get the part, or ever work again.
I am over violence against women not being a #1 international priority, when 1 out of 3 women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. The destruction, and muting, and undermining of women is the destruction of life itself. No women, no future, guys. I am over the endless resurrection of careers of rapists and sexual exploiters. Film directors, world leaders, corporate executives, shamans, priests, rabbis, imans, gurus, coaches, doctors, movie stars, athletes–you put in the rest. While the lives of women are violated, devastated, often forcing them to live in social and emotional exile.
I am over being polite about rape. It's been too long now. We have been too understanding. We need it to end now. We need people truly try to imagine, once and for all, what it feels like to have your body invaded, your mind splintered, your soul shattered, and really, deeply, I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, work with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, brother us, get us, that you're nurtured, you're mothered, you're eternally supported by us. So why aren't you standing with us? Why aren't you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and harassment, degradation, and humiliation of us? . Why aren't you rising in droves, going beyond apologies and confessions, Realizing this is your issue, not ours.
The whole thing could change overnight. There are approximately one billion women on the planet who have already been violated. One billion women and girls. Can we rise together? Can we change the paradigm? Can we rebirth the culture? Because we know that when women are free, and safe, and equal, and allowed to be alive in all their intensity, the whole story will finally change. Yes? Me too."
Image: CBS LA/ YouTube
We are all familiar with the marquee protests in American history: the 1963 March on Washington, the 1969 anti-Vietnam War protest, and the 2017 post-inaugural Women's March. This weekend in Los Angeles, the #MeTooMarch will be protesting the normalizing of rape culture. With the recent bizarre acceptance by many Republicans of Roy Moore, who has a well-sourced history of pedophilia, issue-responsive protests like this are growing more urgent, frequent, and necessary.
With all of this renewed activism in the U.S. and recent Democratic victories in off-year elections, it's important to remember and learn from what has worked in the past. Brittany Shoot wrote a great piece in Atlas Obscura on an often overlooked but highly impactful protest that involved no marching at all. The fact that the protestors were disabled –some physically, some mentally – didn't stop them from conducting the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building in United States history, the 504 Sit-In.
What they accomplished bettered millions of lives to this day. If you're interested in understanding what it takes to effect major changes in policy, or get inspired to do something, this well-written piece about the 26-day long sit-in is worth a few minutes of your time:
(Read Brittany Shoot's full article here)
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 included the little-noticed Section 504, which was based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and mandated integration of people with disabilities into mainstream institutions. But the language was broad, only noting that "no qualified individual with a disability should, only by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." By 1977, disability rights activists weary of asking nicely for their civil rights, decided to move—into the HEW offices [Health, Education, and Welfare], that is.
"At that time in history, there was simply no access—no right to an education, no public transit. You couldn't get into a library or city hall, much less a courtroom," says 504 Sit-In participant, author, and disability rights advocate Corbett Joan O'Toole. She notes that as late as the 1970s, there were no federally mandated social services or agencies for individuals living with disabilities. If an individual wanted to hire an in-home attendant or interpreter, it had to happen through pre-existing social networks.
The interdependency of the group itself, along with the cooperation of other social justice groups, like The Black Panther Party, was significant and very relevant now:
O'Toole notes that people with disabilities—as well as people who are also part of other marginalized populations such as the LGBT community—are accustomed to the type of cooperative interdependence that was necessary for 504. The 100-plus occupiers and their attendants made the building their own almost immediately, draping a window air conditioning unit with a plastic tarp to create a makeshift refrigerator for medications and using the pay phones to communicate with loved ones and news media on the outside until the FBI cut the lines. There were daily consensus-driven committee meetings about everything from media strategy to how to respond to a bomb scare false alarm, in the event the FBI employed tactics to evacuate the building. "Disabled people are incredibly resourceful," O'Toole says. "That is a commonly misunderstood and overlooked part of our history, and it led to the success of 504."
"They [the Black Panther Party] understood what it meant to support a revolutionary movement that wasn't just on the street with weapons," O'Toole says, pointing to the Party's groundbreaking Free Breakfast for Children initiative, which eventually served a reported 20,000 low-income children and influenced federal guidelines for free breakfast and lunch programs still vital in the nation's public schools.
Under 504, nondiscrimination became a legal, fundamental right. Within months of the sit-in, noticeable changes began to take place in urban landscapes, in university classrooms, in the workplace, and in public spaces including libraries, courtrooms, and public transit. Cities instituted curb cuts from street to sidewalk. Federal buildings made adjustments to become accessible to all, including installing ramps and wider restroom stalls. Regulations instituted as a result of the success of 504, ushered in a new era of accessibility that led to the passage of Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.
Image: Nathan Keirn
Last week, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly uninsurable. While tracking the Trumpcare vote (AHCA), I felt like Princess Leia, helplessly watching the Empire destroy her home planet. Yes, the Senate still has to vote on it, and no, I'm not saying that Republicans are evil. But for me and so many Americans, Obamacare (ACA) got rid of the terror and carnage of being denied or unable to afford healthcare coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Watching it dismantled was disturbing.
Obamacare also did away with the false separation of mental health from physical health. Trumpcare does the opposite, classifying mental health care as non-essential, meaning that states, employers, or insurers will decide if the 1 in 5 Americans who struggle with mental illness will be covered at all. May is
Mental Health Awareness Month
, so here's one fact to be aware of:
"The World Health Organization determined that depression is presently the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease." –
World Health Organization
That's just ONE KIND of mental illness. How will Trumpcare affect you, your friends or family with mental health issues? Like this:
The House bill allows states to let health plans:
Drop coverage of mental health and substance use (one of the essential health benefits).
Charge people higher premiums if they have a pre-existing condition, like depression or anxiety.
Create high-risk pools, which are another way of charging people with mental illness more money and providing less coverage.
(National Alliance for the Mentally Ill)
As a person with pre-existing mental health conditions, who is here and stabilized today because of consistent, quality mental health care, it's disturbing to watch federal health care policy under the GOP re-ghettoize mental health care. Obamacare is flawed, yes, but throwing out the progress which brought relief and functionality to so many Americans is illogical and dangerous. It's not great for the GNP numbers either — which should matter to both the GOP and Democrats. My concern is not just for myself, but for people suffering the way I used to, who now have an uncertain path forward. People like Matt, who courageously agreed to share his situation here:
"I was mugged and knocked out pretty bad way back in 2008. Lost some speech capability and had to get all the MRI's and CT scans and whatever else. I basically recovered, but haven't been the same since. My decision making is the worst now. Impulse control and compulsions can be frustrating for everyone — I believe those decisions happen in the frontal lobe. I guess mine was damaged. I was never a genius, but I had control before.
No one can really understand what I'm feeling. Depression is constant, super anger flashes, heightened over-sensitivity to light and noise, and I don't like to be looked at (which I guess is called sociophobia). I don't feel joy anymore. Thoughts of suicide are always present and sometimes I, irrationally of course, feel like other people are somehow communicating that I should kill myself. Weird stuff, but very real.
First and probably most importantly, I am not an immediate harm to myself. Just giving you the rundown of pervasive thoughts. They are not rational thoughts, this is just the brain I live with now."
This could happen to anyone, literally walking down the street. Matt wrote the email excerpts in this piece to a former co-worker who lives with a degenerative disease, hoping to find understanding and help. He was about to become homeless due to the cumulative impact his mental health had on his ability to support himself. He is unable to maintain steady employment, and cannot afford Obamacare premiums.
Matt's situation came to my attention when his former co-worker asked if I might know how to help him. My credentials? I'd been there. I'd also been on disability for mental illness. She forwarded me his message, which hit me hard — not just because of what was going on for him — but because I'd written letters like this. I remember how humiliating, terrifying, and useless I felt asking for help. I wanted him to know I was on Team Matt. I called him that night, to try to figure out next steps, and hopefully find a way through. I know it's not easy, but part of me wondered, with the current and future state of our healthcare system, just how hard it was going to be. His letter continued:
"There is also shame involved. Shame about being a grown man who can't handle his business, shame about going backwards with employment goals and generally shame about not being, you know, just normal like everyone else. There's always that element of starting a new job where people innocently ask 'so what did you do before?' Well, I've been clinically depressed and haven't worked much in the last three years.
It's not acceptable in our current society. Lies are preferable, which bugs me, because if someone hurts their leg, they limp and a doctor diagnoses the cause and sets a course of action to correct it. Maybe they still limp, but nobody cares. If you have not had the pleasure of experiencing our mental health system, then good for you. Programs and money are constantly cut, so we have Cook County Jail, right?
I'm sorry but Obamacare sucks, too, probably because it was Romneycare first. You don't get any benefit if you can't work. So my mom paid for Blue Cross straight up for a year. The cost of that went from $230/mo for the cheapest plan to $322/mo the next year! Are you kidding me? So I had to drop any kind of insurance. Seriously, thanks Obama for being too much of a pussy to push for single payer. God knows what Trump will bring."
These are the kinds of catch-22s that beg us to consider single payer, aka Medicare for All. Matt sent his email just hours before the AHCA passed the House. What Trump and the American Health Care Act bring is this:
"over $800 billion cut from Medicaid in the next 10 years, which will cause vital mental health services in states to be slashed.
effectively ends Medicaid expansion — a lifeline for single adults with mental illness who fall through the cracks — which today covers 1 in 3 people who live with a mental health or substance use condition.
Matt recently applied for Medicaid, but was denied — apparently they didn't think his lack of income was believable. If you think that's far-fetched, the same thing has happened to me twice. He will now have to go through the red tape of appealing it. Even if Matt is eligible for Medicaid, it's not going to be a long-term solution if the AHCA passes the Senate. Mental health is not a partisan issue, but it's being treated as one. That we are still discussing this issue is, well, sad.
The brain is a vital organ — arguably the most important. The brain, in tandem with other bodily systems, regulates thought, mood, and behavior, so symptoms of a problem with the brain will manifest primarily in thought, mood, and behavior. Brain health can be impacted by traumatic injury, genetics, brain structure, disease, or biochemical makeup, to name a few. A problem with the brain IS a physical health problem. Mental health already IS physical health, and mental illness already IS physical illness.
Now, we're going backwards in government messaging and it is negatively impacting the already-precarious public understanding of mental illness. Once believed to be caused by demons or possession, humanity progressed to blaming a person's bad character, flawed morality, or laziness for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps during a rough time. We progressed again when science and medicine started to recognize common symptoms and classify disorders. Still today, many people believe mental illness symptoms are a person's fault, or can be fixed by a positive attitude, or a good walk in nature. When you have a mental illness, trying to fix your brain with your brain is like trying to fix a broken arm with a broken arm.
Standard mental health treatment includes talk therapy, and prescription medication, but it doesn't work for everyone. Personally, psychiatric medicine gave me my life back: a functional, motivated quality of existence that I had lost sometime in my early twenties from recurring, disabling depression. Unfortunately, many people who take prescription medication for their mental health conditions get pill-shamed frequently by friends and family — and bad Facebook memes.
Pill-shamers make the same mistake Trumpcare makes: treating mental health as non-physical and non-essential. Sadly, I have seen people cave to this pressure, and tragically, in one case, take their own life. Just as you would not tell a person to stop taking pills for their high blood pressure or insulin for their diabetes, you should not medically advise someone on their psychiatric regimen. That said, medication does not work for everyone or for every condition. It doesn't work for Matt:
"I have seen a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I saw a psychiatrist for a year last year, and my primary care physician was great until she retired. Between them I have tried probably a dozen or so medications to no avail. The clinical term is "treatment-resistant." I have since been diagnosed with Bipolar II and PTSD.
They throw lots and lots of pills at you if you aren't making progress. This can create problems in behavior by itself. I had basically a psychotic break, including auditory hallucinations, caused by medicine. That experience was such a humiliation, it really broke me.
So now I basically have this huge gap of three years of work history with not a lot to show for it. I'm trying to put together some semblance of self reliance again — find a place that would be accepting of spotty work history. If I can find a place to sleep while I try employment again, if you have any openings where I can janitor or host or try bartending or whatever. So yes, even though it's not ideal to go back to a job I had when I was in my twenties, at least it's a place that I know how things work. Those were definitely my happiest days, working with you all."
Mental health disability doesn't mean a complete lack of functionality. It means a lack of consistent, predictable functionality. If you are at times functioning normally and take on a job, then when you have your next episode or acute symptoms, depending on what they are and how often they occur, you risk losing your job. Steady employment is not a psychiatric treatment plan — it's the byproduct of a successful one.
Another option for Matt would be applying for Disability, but that is a long shot considering the rate of denial. Disability, like retirement, is a benefit all Americans are eligible for if they have paid Social Security taxes via work over their lifetime, as Matt has. However, it is such a lengthy and complex application process, that it is common — and recommended — to hire a disability lawyer. For a lawyer to take his case, Matt would need to be under the consistent, documented care of a physician — a crucial component of a successful disability application. With no health insurance or job right now, this is not possible.
&– Andrey Ostrovsky, MD (@AndreyOstrovsky) March 9, 2017
The Chief Medical Officer of Medicaid was called a "hero" for breaking with the administration in opposing the #AHCA.
When your symptoms impact your ability to work, people most commonly turn to Medicaid, if they have insurance at all. They are the ones who will be most impacted by these $800 billion in cuts that supposedly don't impact anyone. Right now, Matt is one of the "anyone":
I'm in a slightly dire situation now. I thought I had co-signers for my current apartment lease renewal, but money and a cosigner are both problems of my own making. I wouldn't co-sign for me either without any income. I have to be out actually tomorrow by midnight. So I'm throwing it all at the wall. This is all going in slow motion for me, like it's not real, but after this Friday I'm probably going to try and sleep in the park.
I hate to depend on other people, but that's all I can do now. I'm a 43 year old man who is mentally ill. I've never really admitted that before. There's a reason mentally ill folks end up homeless. And now it's me. Gross feeling to own.
I can say that I'm going to sleep in the park, but I have to admit, it's pretty scary. But I wouldn't be the first. To be extremely honest and real with you, I would just like to end my life, since I haven't felt or looked forward to anything for awhile. But logistically, I don't know how people do it. I do, of course, but the options are tough to conceive and accomplish, believe it or not. I'm not a fan of gruesome for other people."
Yes, Rep. Labrador, people do die from lack of access to healthcare, and those with mental illness or in active addiction are arguably the most critically vulnerable, whether by their own hand or accidental overdose. In talking to people about suicide, one thing is clear: the symptoms of untreated depression are not sustainable in the long term. People are looking for relief. As strange as it may sound, the thing I hear the most from friends with severe depression, is that just knowing you have the power to make it end can get you through another day. Worldwide, someone commits suicide every 40 seconds. It is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.
"The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 24 million will lose insurance for mental health care, pushing people with mental illness to emergency rooms, jails and the streets." — NAMI
And yeah, probably some to the morgue, frankly. To those who say that nobody is denied care, that they have to treat you at an ER, that does not work for the mentally ill. I know from taking suicidal people to the ER that their only legal obligation is to medically stabilize you, and consult with a psychiatrist to determine if you are still a danger to yourself. For people without insurance, that's about as far as it goes. A particularly hard hit group will be
You can't get an accurate psychiatric diagnosis and a long-term mental health treatment plan in an ER. You can't complete addiction treatment in an ER. When someone says they're suicidal or abusing substances, they're describing symptoms they need a solution for, they're not looking to get committed to a psych ward for two or three days.
Regressive policy and ignorant thinking are particularly lethal for mental illness — and that includes addiction. The U.S. Surgeon General recently reclassified addiction as a brain disorder, a type of mental illness, in the agency's bombshell report, "Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.
Why didn't anyone hear about it? Because the report was released a week after the 2016 presidential election. It was huge, life-altering news for anyone with skin in the game: the idea that the substances of addiction are ancillary, that the modern focus of cause and treatment is on the brain's role. Sadly, it didn't get the attention it deserved.
"We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw — it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer." – former Surgeon General
However, compassion does not seem to be in Trump's playbook when it comes to drug policy. Trump has since
fired Surgeon General Murthy
, and cut the Drug Policy budget by 95%,
effectively killing it
. There is little indication as to how he plans to address the opioid crisis, outside of his continued praise of
addict-killing Philippines President Duterte
, whom he recently invited to the White House, appointing Chris Christie to head the now-gutted White House commission on drug policy, and knowing the
he gives the private prison industry when his policies call for incarcerating certain types of people.
The mentally ill and addicts are not a powerful lobbying force. Considering the stigma, who wants to join a coalition made up of them? Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, was an
of mental health and addiction treatment. She is gone now. The mentally ill are not only under-served, they are largely powerless, and without treatment, symptoms become acute and lethal. Who will stand up for them?
The United States has been observing Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949. It's time for us a nation to consider the minimum threshold we are willing to maintain for mental health care in this country, based on our shared values and humanity, not religion, race, or party. Humans are too reckless and stupid to wear seat belts unless we're forced to. There is a reason we drive on one side of the road. Laws have to be better than the worst of us, for the good of public safety and health. So what are we willing to do for the mentally ill? We need to decide what baseline of care lets us sleep at night, and legislate from there. I do not take my mental health for granted — I need to be vigilant every day. So it is with our democracy.
Civil rights, which seem obvious, had to be embedded into the nation's laws, and they are tested daily. In the same way, progress in our understanding and treatment of mental health as undifferentiated from physical health, needs to be in the fabric of our laws, accepted in our culture, and reflected in our media. We need to institutionalize empathy and compassion for the mentally ill to preserve the social and civic progress we have made. Otherwise, we go backward, and people will be ground up in the apathy and red tape. Like Matt, they already are.
The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, should have basic health care, or
Medicare for All
, that is not tied to employment status or work requirements — for so many reasons. One of them is so that people with debilitating health conditions like Matt's are not cast out to fend for themselves. I hope, as a society, we can agree on that basic principle. If we do, we need to get the details right, because the details matter when you're facing the street. In all the current and forthcoming analysis and partisan bickering, we need to remember people's lives are at stake.
Consistent, quality mental health care enables me to function and be a productive member of society — something I am not capable of without it. So yeah, Obamacare was my Alderaan. Now what? I hope people will stand up for us, for people like me, for people like Matt, because Go Fund Me cannot be the solution to America's healthcare crises — but right now, for Matt, that's
all he's got.
"I never thought in a million years I would be this guy. But I guess this is how it happens. I rarely drink, I don't use drugs, and I don't smoke. Luckily I can't grow much of a beard, so I won't be one of those dirty beard guys. So there's that. I'm trying to kid myself into believing this will be fine. And I fully realize I am actually one of the lucky ones. Some folks are totally alone."
Actions you can take:
Not since the Reagan era cold war with Russia has apocalyptic awareness been so forefront in the public's mind. Disturbing incidents ranging from nuclear football Facebook selfies to alarming North Korean military activity now accrue weekly. Sometimes hourly. What can one do besides scroll through Twitter before bedtime and let the news populate our nightmares?
The distractions and details are addictive: political murders via improv and a spray bottle, daily revelations of Russian infiltration in US elections and government, and today the president is yelling at Sweden. Tomorrow it might be Ireland. Who knows. We watch the global breakup like helpless children realizing that mom and dad are really getting a divorce. Right now, the sitting US president is not even welcome in the British Parliament, but he regularly tweets flattering sentiments to Russia. But there is a larger story that needs telling–and action.
Lost in the noise was the recent breakage of a mile-long stretch of West Antarctica, due to warmer ocean water. It was part of one of the largest glaciers within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which scientists predict will collapse in the next 100 years. NASA caught the images of the event earlier in the week, but the story broke just as Scott Pruitt was confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency–making it seem as if the Earth did the planetary version of a spit take at the news. Timing aside, it was a big deal.
In the distraction of every new development, tweet, or outrage, it's hard to get a bird's eye view of what the hell is going on in the literal world. Luckily, Laurie Penny of The Baffler has done that for us, in a brilliant new article that should be required reading for the human race: The Slow Confiscation of Everything: How to think about climate apocalypse. Referencing the daily outrages, legislative battles, and civil division, she writes:
"Racist laws can eventually be overthrown, and even a cultural backslide toward bigotry and nationalism can be slowly, painfully reversed. We don't get a do-over on climate change. The vested interests agitating to strip the planet for parts know that, too—and they plan to profit from this particular apocalypse as hard as they can."
In the piece, she eloquently demonstrates that it is no longer the failure of diplomatic relations that is likely to kill us. It's the man-made weapon that's already been unleashed in global warming. That missile has already been launched. The point becomes clear: climate change is no longer an environmental issue. It's a human rights issue–the right to live, and the right to have our children's children live, too. It is not liberal alarmist drama. It's about life as we know it, and we need to adjust accordingly, or we will soon not recognize it at all.
"Climate change is species collapse by a thousand cuts. There will be no definite moment we can say that yes, today we are fucked, and yesterday we were unfucked. Instead the fuckery increases incrementally year on year, until this is the way the world ends: not with a bang, not with a bonfire, but with the slow and savage confiscation of every little thing that made you human, starting with hope."
Echoing the storyline of her outstanding dystopian novel, Everything Belongs to the Future, she outlines where we are, how we got here, and shows us the (decreasing) options before us. Importantly, government policy choices are part of what determines which path the human race is really on. The voice of the people and their ability to understand this fatally overlooked reality–and then do something about it, is the ray of hope here. But it's an attitude adjustment that needs to happen soon. We're looking at incremental, but preventable, human extinction. We're all drafted for this war, and really, we're all ultimately on the same side. The challenge is, can we stop the bleeding in time?
"It is hard to outline the contours of a future you have never been allowed to imagine—one that is both different from today but accessible from it, too. The best we have been permitted to hope for is that the status quo be scraped to the edges of the present for as long as it lasts—a vote to run the knife around the empty jar of neoliberal aspiration and hope there's enough to cover our asses. If people cannot imagine a future for themselves, all they can measure is what they've lost. Those who believe in the future are left, as they always were, with the responsibility of creating it, and that begins with an act of faith—not just that the future will be survivable, but that it might, somehow, maybe, be an exciting place to live."
With 100 frames of incongruously playful observation connected only by authorship, wit, and uncanny brilliance, The Portable February is a Cliff's Notes thesis on existence, told in line drawings and one-liners by author, poet, and musician David Berman. Randomly exposing the vaudevillian arc of history, Berman extracts the extraordinary from the ordinary. He brings a furied ennui to every moment, grabbing the reader like an LSD-dosed and recently-ousted college professor who hijacked a tourist bus, calmly calling out the sights and overlooked absurdities of American life armed with a keen wit, a soft spot for pop culture, and the occasional ax to grind.
Just flipping through this book, one might say, "This guy can't even fucking draw," but the crudeness of his visual accompaniment is intentional.
In this visual follow-up to his critically-acclaimed book of poetry, Actual Air, David Berman tasks himself with contemplating the missing socks in the laundry load of life. Able to portray human futility in one frame, as in "The Soul and its Shtick," the book's visual simplicity belies the complexity of thought, as in "Humbled by the Void," while a casual humor defines another, like "Daytime Television." In frames like "Irrational 15th Century Battle Scenes," and "'We' stands for 'warn everybody,'" his playful love for humanity emerges, and in the sweet "All culture strives, folks," you can take his beneficent observations to heart.
Berman's inner and outer battles seep into the pages and the juxtaposition of impossibly insightful and wicked smart ideas hung on spare, but potent, frames is pure Berman. Whether intentional or not, the book's seemingly simple title, The Portable February, reflects the author's dual perspectives, as February is a seemingly benign but scathing month. With the ebullience of the holidays deflating like a wheezing balloon into the bleakness of the purgatory of winter, the mercifully short month brings a pointless patina to each of its 28 days. Valentine's Day, February's lone holiday, provides a pink and red glimmer of hope and distraction, yet it's a day often spent alone, sad, disappointed, possibly suicidal, or, if coupled, hated by everyone else. It's no coincidence it's also when the highest rate of suicide occurs in the U.S. What February lacks in joy, it at least mercifully makes up for in brevity. Fittingly, The Portable February gives us a playful guide to the futility of existence in a format you can carry.
The author has spoken publicly about his own near-miss with suicide and the turnaround that came as a result, and his work has always defied categorization, rarely adhering to a recognizable niche in any medium. Though critically acclaimed in every field he endeavors, his output has been sparse since 2009, when he dissolved his band, The Silver Jews, to focus on opposing his Washington lobbyist father, Rick Berman, who 60 Minutes dubbed, "Dr. Evil." In his announcement, Berman described his father as a "despicable man…a sort of human molester. An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historic motherfucking son of a bitch," and vowed, "In a way I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage. Previously I thought, through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world. But there is the matter of Justice. And I'll tell you it's not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns. It hurts. There needs to be something more. I'll see what that might be."
In the meantime, The Portable February is the doodle version of his band's songs – seemingly familiar and benign structures contrasted with unusual and complex themes, working themselves out with all the intensity and unpredictability of a kite tangled in tree branches on a blustery day. Let's hope there's more from the gifted mind of this extraordinary writer, but we've always got this one to go.
The Portable February
by David Berman
2009, 97 pages, 5.5 x 8.8 x 0.5 inches (hardcover)
$10 Buy a copy on Amazon
Via a Freedom of Information Act request, Yellowstone National Park recently reported the tragic details of an accident last summer, where a 23 year old man dissolved after an illegal attempt to bathe in Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. He had gone 200 yards past the legal tourism area with his sister, who was recording on her cell phone when the incident happened. Luckily, that video has not been released.
Though search and rescue was attempted, Deputy Chief Ranger Lorant Veress remarked, "in a very short order, there was a significant amount of dissolving" due to the churning, acidic water. The man was reaching down to test the temperature, with the intent to "hot pot," aka bathe in the steaming water, when he slipped and fell in.
Reports Wyoming's KURL news:
Search and rescue rangers who arrived later did find the victim's body in the pool, along with his wallet, and flip flops. But, a lightning storm stopped the recovery efforts. The next day, workers could not find any remains. Veress says the water was churning, and acidic.
He remarked, "In a very short order, there was a significant amount of dissolving"
Veress said the park posts warning signs for important reasons, "… because it is wild and it hasn't been overly altered by people to make things a whole lot safer, it's got dangers. And a place like Yellowstone which is set aside because of the incredible geothermal resources that are here, all the more so."
Yellowstone is meant to be wild and preserved as such, so the park posts warning signs for this very reason. Despite the signs and the accident, a week later, a Chinese tourist also left the visitors boardwalk and illegally tried to collect water from the same spring to use for its "medicinal purposes." Collecting any of the park's resources, including water from hot springs, is a federal violation and the man was heavily fined. Walking on the fragile crust of the thermal springs causes irreversible environmental damage.
How the hot springs were formed, from the Yellowstone website:
At Yellowstone each year, the rain and melted snow seeps into the earth. Cold to begin with, the water is quickly warmed by heat radiating from a partially molten magma chamber deep underground, the remnant of a cataclysmic volcanic explosion that occurred 600,000 years ago.
After moving throughout this underwater "plumbing" system, the now hot water rises up through a system of small fissures. Here it also interacts with hot gases charged with carbon dioxide rising up from the magma chamber. As some of the carbon dioxide is dissolved in the hot water, a weak, carbonic acid solution is formed. In the Mammoth area, the hot, acidic solution dissolves large quantities of limestone on its way up through the rock layers to the hot springs on the surface.
It is not known why the FOIA report was requested.
As U.S. headlines bombard us with proof of how low humanity can go, here's a look at a happy, peaceful, and prosperous country — The Netherlands — to remind us that it is actually possible for the human race to get it right. If people want to change present circumstances through liberal ideals, it's helpful to look at a liberal, politically stable country with a strong and open economy. Also known as Holland, the country does not have the same history and culture that creates the inherent social and economic problems in the U.S., but it is clearly moving in the right direction — forward.
It's a great destination for liberal ex-patriates looking for a place to live and work — especially in the tech sector — that already has its shit together, in case you really are now considering moving out of the country. Staying or going, it makes sense to see what a liberal society looks like and how it works.
We've compiled a list of facts about The Netherlands to show you what humans can do when they're not fighting en masse on Twitter:
- The Dutch government plans to ban the sales of petrol and diesel-powered cars in 2025
- Healthiest country in the world for diet
- Keeps closing prisons due to a lack of prisoners
- First to legalize same-sex marriage
- Highest concentration of museums in the world
- Highest English-proficiency in the world where it is not first language
- Highest population density in Europe
- Home to more bikes than people
- Cycling in the Netherlands is the safest in the world
- Amsterdam's Schiphol airport offers more direct flights than any airport in the world
- 83 percent of the population live in urban areas but there are few high rises
- Largely secular country: up to 40 percent of Dutch say they have no religion, 30 percent are Catholic, and 20 percent are Protestant.
- Most physically active EU population
- Has liberal stances on issues like drugs, abortion, euthanasia
- Has few abandoned dogs after aggressive campaign fining breeders
- 20,000 miles of bike paths
- World's first solar-powered bike lanes
- Charging points for electric cars are located within 50 meters of each other
The Netherlands' centuries-old tradition of creativity, pragmatism, entrepreneurship, openness and collaboration make it the perfect place to find solutions to the challenges society is facing today in the areas of health and wellness, security, renewable energy, mobility and the climate. The Dutch high-tech systems and materials sector offers pragmatic solutions for these technological challenges. Solutions that, due to the complexity of the challenges, are primarily found in cross-overs in technology and collaboration. The Netherlands is recognized around the world for its products, knowledge and concepts. Its high-tech systems and materials sector has high-end jobs for foreign knowledge workers, skilled workers and teachers. It is also a centre of excellence for research and development in the area of technology and innovation, and promotes collaboration and technology partnerships. The Netherlands offers excellent business conditions for domestic and foreign technology companies alike, and is an attractive place to live and work for entrepreneurs, researchers and students.
The Netherlands has an excellent business infrastructure, an open relationship with the government, knowledge institutes and other companies, excellent technical universities, and work ethics that guarantee high productivity. Many Dutch companies owe their success to their openness and transparency. What's more, the Dutch government is committed to reducing the administrative burden and simplifying regulations, in addition to which its special position as active launching customer plays an important role. The collaboration between industry and knowledge institutes is particularly interesting. A perfect example is the Brainport region of Eindhoven in the south of the Netherlands where creativity and high-tech help shape the future.
Disney just announced that Doc McStuffins, an animated show starring an African-American girl who fixes broken toys and wants to be a doctor, is renewed for its fifth season. Described as "Cheers for preschoolers," its fans took to Twitter this summer wanting to know the show's fate. The social media campaign was led by W. Kamau Bell, a self-described socio-political comedian and dad who hosts CNN's United Shades of America. Bell tweeted today, "Doc McStuffins is one of the most important shows in the history of television." Reports Variety:
Since the series debuted in 2012, it has won much admiration, particularly because it is difficult to find a female African-American protagonist who aspires to be a doctor in many mainstream cartoons. A group of African-American female physicians, inspired by the program, formed the Artemis Medical Society, an organization which has a membership of over 4700 women physicians of color from around the world. First Lady Michelle Obama guest-starred as herself in an episode.
"Doc McStuffins" won a Peabody Award in 2015 and NAACP Image Awards in 2015 and 2016 in the "Outstanding Children's Program" category. Disney says the series averages 16 million views on the Disney Junior app, VOD and Hulu, and reaches 150 million viewers worldwide each quarter, and in the past year was ordered over 20 million times via set-top-box VOD.
We have a new leader in America. Known for his distinct regional accent and often seen wearing a baseball cap at rallies, he starred in a show on NBC, and holds strong opinions about guns and the NRA. He may not be the leader you saw coming, but you're going to see a lot more of him: Michael Moore. The documentary filmmaker shuns the activist label he is often given. In a recent LA Times interview Moore asserted, "I'm not an activist, I'm a citizen. It's redundant to say I'm an activist. We all should be active." Moore has been very active, and has made films that take on some of America's most complex and controversial topics — globalization, gun violence, 9/11, our healthcare system, the economy, war, and most recently, Donald Trump, someone he did see coming. Unlike the Democrats.
Moore tried to warn the left in July, when he wrote a piece titled simply "5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win. In it, he did not mince words: "Go ahead and say the words, 'cause you'll be saying them for the next four years: 'PRESIDENT TRUMP.' Never in my life have I wanted to be proven wrong more than I do right now." With his midwestern directness and efficiency, Moore then proceeded to list how and why Donald Trump was going to win.
Liberals feel aimless and powerless, falling all over each other trying to figure out what happened. Like teenagers at a party that went off the rails, some are locked in the bathroom crying, some are fighting amongst themselves, others are telling everyone it's going to be fine, and some are standing on the kitchen table yelling, trying to restore order in futility. The left needs a designated driver, and Michael Moore is already in the driveway with the car warmed up, waiting for Democrats to pull themselves together and get in.
After the election, Moore posted another 5-point list, this time, a" Morning After To-Do List." Item number one? "Take over the Democratic Party and return it to the people. They have failed us miserably." It might sound like pointing fingers, or running for office, but it's not. It was statement of tough love telling us what was necessary to lay the groundwork for an effective movement against Trump. Two days later, in an interview with LA Times reporter Steven Zeitchik, he said he that he wanted to head that movement:
You live in a country where a majority of its citizens have said they believe there's climate change, they believe women should be paid the same as men, they want a debt-free college education, the don't want us invading countries, they want a raise in the minimum wage, and they want a single-payer true universal health care system. None of that has changed. We live in a country where the majority agree with the "liberal" position. We just lack the liberal leadership to make that happen.
Hillary Clinton won the widest margin of the popular vote in the history of presidential election defeats, but lost in electoral votes — and her supporters are still losing their minds. Also, on the 100th anniversary of a woman's right to vote, electing the first female president seemed like it was meant to be. Now, Twitter reads like a manic-depressive's drunken journal, riddled with earnest hashtags desperately trying to unify the bloodied left, and gloating trolls on the right who were all absent from gym class the day the other kids learned what sportsmanship was.
After appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" along with Rudy Giuliani and Paul Ryan yesterday morning, the in-demand Moore took time to answer questions from Boing Boing:
Maureen Herman: Do you see yourself as a leader or what role do you see yourself in now?
Michael Moore: I am doing my part to help lead the opposition, and will work with others to do so. Less meetings, more action. I tried to warn people about Trump winning — I now have a responsibility to stop him from doing any harm. At least now people are listening to me.
He was right when he said Trump would win, but his article did not go particularly viral at the time, considering Moore's general popularity. It didn't get re-posted, re-tweeted, or shared the way the left, myself included, spread around self-soothing articles on our preferred candidate or editorials painting Trump as an impossible joke. Maybe Moore's perspective was not taken seriously, or it was ignored out of fear of facing the reality we are in now. Maybe we thought that embracing the possibility of a Trump presidency would jinx the election. Whatever the reason, we didn't listen, and we also didn't listen when he said back in 2015 that Trump was going to be the Republican Party's nominee.
"That doesn't make me feel good, the fact that I was right. I never wanted to be more wrong," the outspoken liberal director said in an LA Times interview. "I just don't live in the bubble of New York and L.A. and I was worried with what I was witnessing in the Midwest, the Rust Belt, what I call the 'Brexit' states."
Moore does not make his predictions based on algorithms, polls, and self-satisfied soothsaying. He pays attention to the root causes, he sees how systemic problems play out in individual lives — it's what he has always done in his films. Michael Moore is as woke as they get. He kept his eye on the ball while the rest of us looked away, assuming it would land in our glove. Well, it got dropped and we lost the game.
There's no Red Cross for losing an election, but that's the kind of thing people are looking for. Sure, there are existing Democratic organizations, and nonprofits that work for liberal concerns, like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and NAACP, and donations are coming in. People want to do something. But they need to do something different. Well, yesterday, Michael Moore posted a handy to do list on Twitter:
#1. A massive nationwide opposition movement has exploded. It must continue. I am part of this. You are, too.
Must quickly and decisively form an opposition movement, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the 1960s. I will do my part to help lead this, as I'm sure many others (Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, MoveOn, the hip-hop community, DFA, etc.) will, too. The core of this opposition force will be fueled by young people who, as with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, don't tolerate B.S. and are relentless in their resistance to authority. They have no interest in compromising with racists and misogynists.
#2. Prepare for Trump's Impeachment now. Narcissism and greed and the fact he's a sociopath will lead to him breaking the law.
Prepare to impeach Trump. Just as the Republicans were already planning to do with President Hillary from Day One, we must organize the apparatus that will bring charges against him when he violates his oath and breaks the law — and then we must remove him from office.
#3. Plan now to join millions in civil disobedience when Trump nominates his first Supreme Court Justice.
Must commit right now to a vigorous fight (including civil disobedience, if necessary) which will block any and all Donald Trump Supreme Court nominees who do not meet our approval. We demand the Democrats in the Senate aggressively filibuster any nominees who support Citizens United or who oppose the rights of women, immigrants and the poor. This is non-negotiable.
#4. The DNC must apologize to Bernie Sanders for trying to rig the fight against him, for defaming him, for cheating.
Demand the DNC apologize to Bernie Sanders for trying to fix the primaries against him, for spinning the press to ignore his historic campaign, for giving Clinton the questions in advance at the Flint debate, for its latent ageism and anti-Semitism in trying to turn voters against him because of his age or religious beliefs, and for its anti-democracy system of "super-delegates" who are elected by no one. We all know now had Bernie been given a fair shot, he probably would have been the nominee and he — as the true outsider and "change" candidate — would have inspired and fired up the base and soundly defeated Donald Trump. If no apology is soon forthcoming from the DNC, that's ok — when we take over the Democratic Party (see yesterday's To-Do List, #1), we will issue the apology in person.
#5. Obama must appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the FBI Director's illegal interference in the election.
Demand that President Obama establish a Special Prosecutor to investigate who and what was behind FBI Director James Comey's illegal interference into the Presidential election 11 days before the vote was held.
#6. Abolish electoral college and electronic voting; Election Day held on the weekend, restore voting rights of former prisoners
Begin a national push while it's fresh in everyone's mind for a constitutional amendment to fix our broken electoral system: 1. Eliminate the Electoral College — popular vote only. 2. Paper ballots only — no electronic voting. 3. Election Day must be made a holiday for all — or held on a weekend so more people vote. 4. All citizens, regardless of any run-ins with the criminal "justice" system, must have the right to vote. (In swing states like Florida and Virginia, 30-40% of all Black men are prohibited by law from voting.)
#7. President Obama: send the Army Corps of Engineers to Flint to replace the water pipes. The water is still unusable.
Convince President Obama to immediately do what he should have done a year ago: Send in the Army Corps of Engineers to Flint to dig up and replace all the poisoned pipes. NOTHING HAS CHANGED; the water in Flint is still unusable.
Will try to get these done by sundown. More To-Do tomorrow…
It is not just Moore's accurate political predictions or successful films that make him the right person to lead the left out of the darkness, and it's not his common presence on major talk shows that inspired me to write this article. It was my personal experience with Michael Moore during the 2000 presidential campaign that revealed the kind of guy he was, his core values, and what he thought was possible for America. Sustained, passionate and authentic concern for the welfare of others is hard to find, and even harder to fake. That is what I learned that Michael was all about.
We met the night of the 2000 MTV Video Awards, when a video he directed for Rage Against the Machine was nominated for Best Video. I became friendly with him and his wife, was invited to see him speak at a Ralph Nader for President rally, and a few weeks later, out to dinner. It was at dinner that he spoke eloquently and personally about his hopes and dreams for America, always peppering his points with the stories and struggles of real people. He was so full of belief in the promise of real change, and most importantly, in the ability of everyday people to come together to make it happen. He was supporting Nader's campaign with gusto, and in fact, that nights, he inspired me to vote third party for the first time. Moore left New York not long afterwards to work on what would become the Oscar-winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine. We all know what happened in the 2000 election, when votes for Ralph Nader ate up Al Gore's margin and won George Bush the presidency. I plead guilty.
For as right as he's been, Moore is just as able to admit past mistakes, which he demonstrated famously on Bill Maher's Real Time, when he and Maher literally begged Ralph Nader not to run for president again in 2004. It was not a stunt. He learned the hard way something very profound and critical from the 2000 election: that real change only happens from the bottom up. In a 2010 interview with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now, Moore reflected on his changed stance about third parties:
I have this basic position about Ralph. I've known him for many, many years. He has done so much good for this country. I also believe that he doesn't really have a handle on what the proper strategy is to get this country in our hands. I don't see him ever working with the grassroots or with the people or being in touch with the people in any way, shape or form. if we really want to try and get this power in our hands, in the people's hands, in the hands of the working people of this country, then we should, on a very grassroots level, from the bottom up, be doing things — whether it's running for local office, or taking over the local Democratic Party."
The game is rigged in America when it comes to third parties. There's no way that that's ever going to work. And so, then how, instead of letting the game, I guess, rig us, what can we do to the game itself? And if the game is, well, we have these two political parties which are really very much like one party, why don't we make sure that one of those parties actually is a second party and start locally and do that? And that's what I encourage people to do. That's my approach."
If earnest optimism and the belief in significant change were Moore's greatest flaws in 2000, they are now an asset that over a half of the country desperately needs. What he learned from that election and every one since, is reflected in his to do list. This is not just wild revolutionary posturing. This came from being in the trenches. It came from losing and understanding what it takes to win. It came from seeing the impact of an election on the working folks who have inspired his life's work, and wanting sincerely to stop the suffering.
So the morning after the 2016 election, when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow very accurately posted the very real impact of third party votes, it echoed the frustration of 2000. So if anyone was wondering why Moore and others who initially supported Bernie Sanders didn't go "Bernie or Bust," like our younger counterparts, it comes from what voters like myself experienced firsthand, having lived through eight years of a Bush presidency.
— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) November 9, 2016
Moore is not afraid to call the Democratic party out on its mistake with Bernie Sanders, and the role that played in the election, and he makes that clear on his to do list. He doesn't blame third party voters for Trump — He holds the Democratic party responsible for leading them there. He knows there are other factors, like the impact of prisoners without voting rights — people who are subject to punishment under the law, but not allowed to participate in the system of government. He recognizes that even if Hillary had won, things are still very broken, just by virtue of what happened to Sanders. Moore's razor sharp focus is on changing, the Democratic party from the inside.
Just catching up on all the economic anxiety in my inbox pic.twitter.com/wo2BlkcBV8
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 13, 2016
Moore is also careful not to blame racism for the election results. He is very aware of and concerned about the racial tension in the country, but he stresses that it should not keep us from looking at the very real economic issues that put Trump in the White House, as he told the LA Times:
The Democratic Party doesn't seem to get it. Working people that are both African American and white — don't make it a racial thing — have suffered at the hands of both Republicans and Democrats," Moore said. He grew more fiery. "The DNC has to resign. They all have to resign."
Maureen Herman: People would love to see Trump ousted from office, but most think it's unrealistic. What do you say to that?
Michael Moore: We must work every path that leads to stopping Trump — legal, popular opinion, mass protest, forcing elected officials to obstruct his every negative move.
In his "Morning After" list, Moore warned that Democrats in Congress who were not ready to fight "must step out of the way and let those of us who know the score lead the way in stopping the meanness and the madness that's about to begin." In the LA Times interview, Moore doubled down on the goal of removing Trump. "I don't believe anyone in the media who says we're going to have four years of Trump. This is a man who doesn't have any ideology; the only thing he believes in is Donald Trump. And that's usually a one-way ticket out of office."
Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2016
Maureen Herman: What can people do immediately to get involved with this movement?
Michael Moore: Find the protests in your area and show up. If there are none, start one. Post photos and video on social media. Stay aware of other things going on and get involved!
Another documentary filmmaker, comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, posted a text message to his daughter, in answer to her asking how he was doing after the election. It sums up where a lot of us are, or need to be right now:
Numb, but it's just put the fire back in me. It's time for me to make a big noise. Protect your rights, protect the gays, protect minorities. This will wake up the strength and good people. I know it sounds crazy, but a lot of good will come from this. Too many good people just got a huge wake up call. It's OK to be sad and scared, but love, the real beautiful kind of love, comes out of times like these. We're the new 60s. Time to love and kick ass, and stand up to sexism and racism.
So all hands on deck. Get in the car with Uncle Mike. And yes, we can stop at Denny's on the way home. You're going to need your energy.
With additional reporting by Katie Schwartz
On Election Night, you went to bed crying, and this time, I couldn't fix it. Like half the country, you thought you would be going to bed with your candidate as the president-elect. I wiped away a big, globby tear from the end of your nose, proud of you for caring so deeply about your country. I said it was going to be OK. I explained that, "politics goes back and forth, and this year it just wasn't our turn. Remember when I was for Obama and you were for Hillary, and she lost the primary, but you ended up liking Obama?" Your thirteen year-old defiance broke through your tears, as you declared, "No, this is different!"
You then spouted off a litany of things I didn't know you thought much about:
"It's different because Donald Trump doesn't have the basic morals of everything our country stands for. He doesn't even have the morals of a normal Republican. It's not that the other side won. It's that the person who won is literally against half of the people in the country. He doesn't like Muslims, Mexicans, anyone who is LGBT, he definitely doesn't like women, or people of color. He doesn't like ME. It seems like he only likes people like himself — white males. How can he be our president?"
He's our president because people voted for him and he won the election. I will be raising you under a Donald Trump presidency until you go to college in four years. But you're right, it is different. I admit I don't know how to talk to you about racism and sexism sometimes, because we haven't had to face it too much so far.
For most of your life, your president was an exemplary family man who treated his wife and daughters with love and respect and never talked about women in degrading ways. For the past eight years, your president had the same skin color as you, and he was raised by a single mom, just like you. His mother was white, and his father was black, just like you. Your skin color is a ridiculous things to even mention, except in our country, it matters.
As your mom, I find it so hard to teach you that something doesn't matter but at the same time matters so much. How do I tell you that Black Lives Matter when you can see on YouTube that they don't seem to? You will be driving in two years. I will need to teach you how to be arrested without getting hurt or even killed. As a white person, how do I tell you what to do when you are treated differently because of how you look? My parents never had to teach me that. I only have until you're eighteen to get this right — when you're old enough to cast your own vote.
It's important to me that you know without a doubt that voting is not the only voice we have in our democracy. You asked about joining debate team at school the other day — I say go for it. You should know how to defend the ideas you feel strongly about. It's also important to learn how to challenge the opinions of others with intelligence, calm, and respect. I know this is not what you see on TV these days.
Racist and sexist people may now feel empowered to express themselves more often and more angrily, now that they have a president they feel represents the same ideas. Racist and sexist things may happen in your life more often. You will hear things on the news, at school, and see things online that I can't shield you from. I have felt the hate from Trump supporters because of who I voted for. It scares me that so many of them will judge you because you are black, or think less of you because you are a woman.
You were three years old the first time you experienced racism, when I picked you up from preschool and you told me a girl said you were the wrong color. You wanted to know what the right color was. I awkwardly tried to explain a horrible truth to your sweet, innocent self, that some people hate others because of what color their skin is. I told you that there is no right or wrong color, but I didn't tell you that in America, that isn't really true. I was so upset driving home I could barely see. I spoke to your school after that incident. I didn't know what else to do.
I read to you a lot, and you loved to read. As you grew up, sometimes teachers and other parents would say how well-spoken and well-mannered you were, or how well you read. But there were times that it was not a compliment, but an expression of shock. They did not expect that from a black girl. I didn't say anything in those instances and I regret it. I didn't know how to confront that kind of racism. But we both need to learn.
I won't always be there when something happens, but I promise to protect you and stand up for you, no matter what, as best I can. I promise to listen when you tell me that you didn't get the apartment, the date, or the chance, because you are black, or that you didn't get the job, the promotion, or the salary, because you are a woman. I promise I will comfort you, but I also promise to teach you how to confront and change injustices effectively — we will be learning as we go along, you and I.
I am sorry the world is like this. I couldn't change the result of the election, or fix the country with my vote. But I can control how I live my life. I will write, share my story and experiences, to help others understand the things I have learned and seen: that being homeless doesn't make you bad; being poor doesn't make you lazy; being black doesn't make you violent; having mental illness doesn't make you an outcast; being sexually assaulted doesn't mean you did anything wrong. We are people. Sometimes we are in crisis or pain, alone and lost, sometimes we need help, but we are all capable of coming through even the most hopeless of circumstances. I know because I did.
I've always been honest with you about my past, my mistakes and challenges, and some people think it is inappropriate. They think that I should hide it from you and be ashamed. I won't. It is one thing I am sure I did right so far as your mom. What I hear most often about you from teachers, parents, and friends — going back to kindergarten — is that you have so much empathy for others, that you will stand up to a bully, or befriend the new kid. That means you can put yourself in someone else's shoes, that you can see another side to things, that you can look at someone different from you with love in your heart. I am touched every time I witness it in you. I saw this when our Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I was so touched at your expression of empathy for the Cleveland Indians team and fans, because of how it must have felt to lose after coming so far. You made me so proud to be your mom.
Having empathy is empowering, because it means you can vote with your life, every day. It is what I love about the Democratic Party. That is why I have been honest with you about who I am all your life — because I wanted to show you that people can change, no matter who you are, that your life can change, no matter how bad it seems. Hiding reality from you would not prepare you for life, and your empathy tells me it was the right choice. It has broadened the vocabulary of your heart, to know the truth.
You know that homeless people are struggling people, not bad, because I told you about the time I was homeless. When you see a homeless person begging, you always ask if we can help. Sometimes we can't. You know that many homeless people have mental health conditions, because we talked about it when I told you I had depression, and what it was. You know I speak very openly about mental health to encourage those that are suffering to ask for help, because I suffered so needlessly for decades, not seeking treatment, because I was ashamed. You have seen me help others by speaking and writing about it.
You know I am a recovering alcoholic and addict, because you have seen me go to meetings all your life. You have seen me work for prison reform. You understand that I do it to help people like me get help instead of given jail time. Now, you even know that I was sexually assaulted, because you asked how I got pregnant with you. That was a tough conversation, but we got through it, didn't we? It is not something to be ashamed of — ever — for either of us. I was amazed that you were able to see it from another perspective, too. You said that if that happened to you, you don't think you would make the same choice I did.
You have an absolute right to make that choice, and always will, even if the law in our country changes, because of who Donald Trump will appoint to the Supreme Court. I will always work like hell to make sure you have that choice, because I know that no one can make that decision for you — and never should. It was so hard I almost didn't survive it, and I only did because I had extraordinary support from family, and from the very government programs Republicans want so badly to cut. Standing up for these things are ways to vote with my life, with my passion, with my work, with what I do for others, what I stand up for, stand up to, and why. I have found that this is the most important way to make a difference, because there are problems, there are things to worry about, there is work to do.
So, when I said there was nothing to worry about, that's not really how I felt. I didn't tell you that I felt like Donald Trump and his supporters just came along and kicked over the sand castle that Obama and people like me had spent eight years building. I didn't tell you I felt upset, scared, hopeless, deflated, and unsure, or that I was afraid of what Donald Trump has brought into our homes and our lives that could hurt us. I didn't tell you I'm not sure I can protect us both from everything. I didn't want you to feel unsafe. I didn't want that happy-go-lucky anything-is-possible quality about you that I love so much to go away.
I'm writing this to keep telling you the truth, and to tell you that no matter how nervous I might get about things, I never give up, because again and again I have seen my life transform from the worst possible circumstances to ones beyond my greatest dreams. Sometimes the most terrible of things happens and we suffer. But I have found so many times, that out of these dark times, so often for me comes something amazing — better than I'd ever dreamed. Sometimes I have to wait for it, and I always have to work for it. But when I look back, I find myself being grateful for times when it all seemed so hopeless, because that's when I found my passion, my purpose, and gave it my all.
Still, I must remind you that things do not always go our way. My job is to teach you to win with honor and grace, which is not what we are seeing from Trump voters right now, and how to lose with dignity and character. I remember when you helped me fill out my mail-in ballot a few weeks ago, looking up all the candidates and propositions together. It was the first time we really talked about politics like that, and we both felt very strongly about many things. We get one vote — an equal say. We have a voice that contributes to the whole — the whole city, state, and country. But if more people decide they feel differently than we do, we go along with it. If we can't go along with it, we need to help people understand why. There are other ways to be heard, to contribute, to change things.
Before you went to bed on Election Night, I told you one person can't change the entire country so easily. Apparently, you're getting a good civics education, because you rolled your thirteen year old eyes at me and said, "Mom, the House and Senate are red, too. Duh." Impossibility and diversity. Defeat and despair. That's where change comes from, that's where seeds of greatness are born — you see it in your history class.
That's why you are doing a project on Rosa Parks and not on the people who told her to move or called her names. She stood up against something that was wrong even though almost everyone else was saying it was right. It was probably the worst day of her life at the time, and look what came of it — her legacy, her greatness, and all that it did to help so many after her. It's the same reason why we celebrated the Suffragettes this week, who fought so hard for a woman's right to vote. History is not kind to those who try to block progress. Their names are not celebrated and rarely remembered.
You want to be a surgeon someday. I hope that you not only realize your dream, but accomplish things you haven't thought of yet. My job is to give your life room to pursue your dreams, even during the times we struggle. That is the great promise of our country and it is still true no matter who is president. But it is also my job to teach you that we are not just what we do for a living, that our greatness is not measured by how much money we have. You are magnificent and worthy just as you are, no matter what anyone else says or calls you. Character is defined by how you treat others — especially those who are different from you, who you disagree with, or who hate you. We do not yell at them, or call them names. I want the experience of having Donald Trump as your president to make you a better person, not angry, resentful, or mean. Those are the things you don't like about him, remember?
I promise to work to keep you safe, to keep you whole. You will see so many others, including Hillary Clinton, and others who lost, doing the same. You will see that people like us, we rise from defeat, we are nourished and inspired by it. We transform it into a unifying power. We always have. Now grab my hand. Let's go.
Maureen Herman, author and musician, is currently writing her first book, It's a Memoir, Motherfucker on Macmillan's Flatiron Books imprint, due in 2017. She was the bassist of Babes in Toyland from 1992 until 1996 and from 2014-August 2015. She lives in Los Angeles with her amazing daughter. She's also known to be activist-y.
Oh, just the 7th largest gathering of humans in history happened last week.
Five million of the most patient humans in the world — Cubs fans — descended on Chicago's lakefront last week to celebrate a victory that was against all odds. But win they did, ending the longest World Series drought in baseball history — 108 years — and the lifting of the Billy Goat Curse. Friday's event was the 7th largest get-together in human history, about a million shy of the 2015 papal visit to the Philippines. The rest of us can keep it simple and get a glimpse of the Cubs on The Tonight Show Monday. The event in Grant Park turned out to be a pretty tame party for Chicago, when you consider the things fans have done over the years to try to lift the curse.
But first, what is the Billy Goat Curse? In 1945, Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis and his goat were ejected from Wrigley Field during Game 4 of the Cubs first World Series since 1908. Apparently the goat's odor was offensive, Sianis was offended and enraged, and legend has it that he declared, "Them Cubs, they ain't gonna win no more." The Cubs lost the game that day and haven't even been a contender in another World Series, let alone champions, in the 108 years since. Until last week.
Actual Things People Did — and Ate — To Lift the Curse
As the century passed without a win, younger generations sought to "reverse the curse." Here's a few notable attempts from just the last ten years:
- Hanging a butchered goat on the statue of beloved Cubs sports announcer, the late Harry Caray, famous for his hearty rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Passionate move, folks, but gross.
- Tried a kinder, gentler approach and had a priest bless the dugout. Nope.
- Went back to goat butchering, this time hanging just the severed head of the goat on the Harry Caray statue. Chicago minimalism.
- Five fans calling themselves "Crack the Curse" traveled with a goat named Wrigley from Arizona to Wrigley field on foot in 2012. Nice try, and how did the goat like it?
- Not to be deterred, butcher-prone fans again went with the severed goat's head in 2013 but this time delivering it the Cubs owner. Very theatrical, but no dice. Also bad manners.
- Last year, in possibly the most ardent show of the curse-lifting lengths of disgust that Chicago fans will go to, five of them consumed a 40 lb. goat at Chicago's "Taco in a Bag" Restaurant in 13 minutes. It is not known how it tasted or if it was in a bag or why the venue was chosen. But it makes good copy, doesn't it?
- In 2016, vegetarian restaurant "The Chicago Diner" teamed up with farm animal advocates Farm Sanctuary to "reverse the curse" courageously urging Chicago, famous for its hot dogs and other encased meats, and known as the "hog butcher to the world," to go meat-free. Maybe the baseball gods were just looking for a little tenderness — not ousting the goat from Wrigley, dismembering it, or forcing it on a cross-country march. Be kind to animals, eat healthy, and boom! Curse lifted!
FiveThirtyEight gave the Cubs a 15% chance of winning the World Series — they give Trump a 33% chance of winning the presidency — your vote matters
Unlike the election, the World Series featured two well-matched, equally qualified sides and was a contest I could safely watch with my 13 year old daughter. Our two presidential candidates are more like the Bad News Bears. No, the Worst News Bears. Actually, the Most Unbelievably Insane and Armageddon-like News Bears in History. If baseball is America's game, then politics has become America's tedious assembly line job working 15-hour shifts in an un-air-conditioned factory with no hope of change.
The Cubs had a 15% chance of winning the 2016 World Series, according to revered data journalists FiveThirtyEight, who currently give Donald Trump 33% for the presidency. 40 million people watched the Cubs win Game 7 against those odds — about a third of 2012's voter turnout.
Like our current election, the World Series was a study of extremes — firsts, mosts, and worsts.
In an election where Wikileaks has inserted itself in the role of instant replay, the Cubs victory is our real-world example that anything can happen on November 8th. Who could predict that 22-year old Cubs infielder Addison Russell would go out dressed as a turtle on Halloween night, then hit a crucial grand slam in Game 5 the next day? No one could foresee Game 7 going into extra innings with a tie at the bottom of the 9th. What will we be saying we didn't foresee about the election?
It should serve as a lesson to us all to get out and vote, no matter what the polls say. Both history and conventional wisdom said the Cubs couldn't win after being down two games. In fact, press bias against them from Fox Sports World Series announcer Joe Buck was so severe, that his first post-game on-camera commentary after the Cubs historic and heart attack-inducing Game 7 victory, was to talk about how great the Cleveland Indians were. (Twitter noticed btw.)
"A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings." ~Earl Wilson
Even the weather was a factor, when a brief rain delay-turned cliffhanger before the 10th and final inning inspired the Cubs veteran right fielder Jason Heyward to gather his teammates for what became a game-changing meeting that, as ESPN described it, "was a win-one-for-the-Gipper speech that will resonate through Cubs history. And it impacted his teammates, even in the moment." They proceeded to close the chapter on the curse in what ESPN senior writer Jayson Stark called, "the greatest World Series Game 7 ever played." Fate turns on a dime in both baseball and politics. Vote.
Superlatives, Synchronicities, and Superstitions
Winning the 2016 World Series was literally the best thing for Chicago since sliced bread, which had not yet been invented in 1908. Cubs fans are not only famous for their cult-like superstition, but for their hopeful patience. People didn't even have radios in their homes in 1908 — the technology was just making its way into the world. That's where the Cubs victory slogan "Fly the W" comes from: before radio and TV, the only way to tell the city the Cubs won the game, until the papers came out the next day, was to fly a flag emblazoned with "W" for "Win" high above Wrigley Field so people all over the city could see it — OK, the north side at least. Though now TV, Twitter and instant replay give us up to the second updates, the practice of flying the W flag after a Cubs win remains a beloved tradition.
Though #FlytheW brought us into a new era as a victory hashtag for the Cubs, they have been the butt of over a century of jokes for their losses, Some standout observations on what life was like the #LastTimeCubsWonWorldSeries:
- Germany was led by a Kaiser
- Women couldn't vote
- Neither World War had started yet
- The Titanic hadn't been built yet
- Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Oklahoma and New Mexico were not states yet.
- The last time the Cubs won, Anthony Weiner was sending dick sketches via carrier pigeon.
- The government wasn't owned by JP Morgan the bank; just JP Morgan, the guy
- Those boots every hipster wears were seen on conestoga wagon drivers
Cursed by the owner of one Chicago restaurant, The Billy Goat Tavern, a place whose limited menu choices was unforgettably memorialized by SNL, it took another Chicago restaurant, The Chicago Diner, whose slogan is "meat-free since '83," to lift the curse. If you're the superstitious type, you might consider the following:
- Last week, Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow posted an interview with Back to the Future II's writer, who based the 2015 version of Bif — a casino-owner-turned-president — on Donald Trump. Another prediction in the 1985 movie: Cubs are the World Series champs. OK, one year off, but still.
- In celebration of the Cubs' victory, the city dyed the Chicago River blue and…
- …blue is the color Illinois has been on the electoral map for the past 24 years (before they assigned colors, actually)
- Cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo tagged the game-winning out that won the Series
- Donald Trump tweeted (surprise) a threatening and negative comment about the Cubs owners earlier this year, saying, "I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $'s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide."
- Hillary Clinton was born five miles from Wrigley Field and identifies as a Cubs fan.
- Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello appeared in a video that aired right before a crucial game seeming pretty damn confident that they'd win. They did.
- Lifelong Cubs fan Bill Murray, who appeared in skits about the Billy Goat Tavern on SNL in the 1970s, was at all seven Cubs World Series games. He was trained at The Second City — once Chicago's nickname before L.A. took its place.
- In 1993, a high school student named Michael Lee predicted the Cubs would win the 2016 World Series, adding under his yearbook photo, "You heard it here first."
- 108 year drought; 108 seams in a baseball.
What will November 9th's #1 hashtag be? We'll see. But, remember, #AnythingCanHappen.
"No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined." — Paul Gallico
Chicago Cubs Rally at Grant Park
2016 World Series Game 7 in 30 Minutes
In keeping with Boing Boing's mission of being a "directory of mostly wonderful things," here's a new video by Frank Sinatra's bastard son, performing an updated version of The Dead Kennedys' song "California Über Alles" while changing backstage. OK, it's not the actual bastard son of Sinatra. It's Toby Huss of TV's Halt and Catch Fire, playing his alter ego Rudy Casoni, (who does claim to be the lounge singer's illegitimate son). Huss-as-Casoni references the current political circus before throwing some 2016 shade at Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown with some updated lyrics. The video offers us a brief respite from the 24-hour Trump-centric Republican bashing (deserving as it may be), using casual visual wit, some cameos by comedic actors like Kate Flannery and James Urbaniak of The Office, Boing Boing pal Mark Fite, and some pretty stunning Frank-channeling vocal work–especially on the breakneck-speed chorus mid-song.
When I asked Huss why he made the video, he answered as Casoni, saying, "This shitbird parade of a presidential election has been trying to murder me for months now. So I fought back the only way I know how: with booze. Plenty of booze. But then a song. And then some drunken singing. Then I got sick all over a good suit and fell asleep in a warm dumpster behind a nightclub humming a punk rock tune. That's the Casoni way, so shove it. I know that bum Jerry Brown is behind this turdshow anyway, so I'm voting for Liquor. Mr. Malted Liquor." So there you have it.
A fun diversion for us, but not all that unusual a move for Huss, who shows up at odd junctures of our pop culture. His first televised parodies of Sinatra covered songs by the likes of Dr. Dre and Cypress Hill for 90s MTV Network promos, where he also did voices for Mike Judge's Beavis and Butthead. From there, he just kept popping up, which is why he's often approached on the street as that guy people think they know, but can't place.
Understandable — besides Huss's current role as Bosworth on Halt and Catch Fire, he's played the beloved Artie, "the Strongest Man in the World" on Nickelodeon's Pete and Pete, appeared on a lauded Seinfeld episode as Elaine's boyfriend, "The Wiz," did the voices of Kahn and Cotton Hill on King of the Hill for thirteen years, and is seen in a diverse string of TV shows like Reno 911, Carnivale, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, plus films like 42, Rescue Dawn, Ghostbusters, and Cowboys & Aliens. Huss even pops up in theaters this weekend for horror director Ti West's critically-lauded foray into the Western film genre, In a Valley of Violence, starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. So, really, a Dead Kennedys-spouting Sinatra bastard debuting a video on Boing Boing is just another day in the life for the chameleon-like Huss. Enjoy.
SoCal residents: The Rudy Casoni Boozebag Revue will have their annual XXXMas Show in Los Angeles Dec. 9th and 10th at Trepany House at the Steve Allen Theater, featuring Toby Huss, "most of the people from this video, The Dago 5 Band, shitbirds, Billy the Mime, the Poubelle Twins, boozebags, dum-dums, drunk Santa, and an elf who's a real prick," according to Casoni.
(California Über Alles video directed by Peter Hastings; Featuring Toby Huss with James Urbaniak, Kate Flannery, Mark Fite, Pat Healy, Audrey Deluxe, Kelly Rae Cole and the Dago5 Band, Andy Paley, Phil Small, James King, Mike Bolger, Jordan Katz, Ryan Feves, and Mark San Filippo.)
With the cacophony of an election year ablaze with unparalleled drama being fought on the front lines of Twitter, we find ourselves slowing down and staring at it like a bad accident. The need for escapist relief is perhaps more dire than usual right now. This fall, if it's drama you crave, but the Hillary v. Trump show is driving you to near-suicide, then the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire is your new best friend. Returning for its third season on Tuesday, August 23rd with a two-hour premiere, you'll still get your fix of intriguing plot twists, flawed personalities, and high stakes, but without the partisan tantrums and pre-apocalyptic anxiety.
What the Hell is this Show About?
The show's title refers to the computing term (HCF), "Halt and Catch Fire," an early technical command that sends a computer into race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained. The namesake series takes place in the personal computing boom of the 80s, when IBM was dictator, and before "website" was a word. Though HCF is categorized as a "workplace drama," you could say the same thing about Breaking Bad, and you'd be completely missing the point–and the thrill–of both shows.
To "break bad" is a colloquialism used in the American South meaning to challenge authority. Breaking Bad and HCF have three important things in common: obscure, nondescript titles that run the risk of losing potential viewers who need their plot summaries spoon-fed and hashtagged, a committed, forward-thinking home on AMC Networks, and the consistently visionary TV producer Melissa Bernstein.
Bernstein saw the potential in Breaking Bad, arguably the least commercially viable TV pitch in history–a meth-selling teacher with terminal cancer–and saw it through from start to finish, executing a literally dead-end idea into one of the most lauded TV shows of our time. We knew Walter White was going to die, but that doesn't mean it wasn't thrilling to watch him get there. I asked her if that hybrid of inevitability and possibility was in HCF:
Melissa Bernstein: It's all about the writers capturing specific, compelling, flawed characters that you want to know more about. Breaking Bad has wonderful overlap with HCF. If you find a great journey that's worthy of an audience's time, that's what matters, and both those shows have it. I love the characters, they felt like people I hadn't seen a hundred different times. That felt very fresh to me in a universe that is getting more crowded every day.
On a panel at the recent Brainstorm Tech conference in Denver, Bernstein noted: "It provides some insight into where we're headed, and why. I think looking back will help us look forward. We are now, as a people, disconnected in some ways, but connected in a way that nobody ever could have imagined, and I think this story looks at that, too. So much of what these characters are trying to do is use computers to connect people, and honestly, to find it for themselves, to connect as human beings in a meaningful way with their existence…despite some of their self-destructive tendencies."
As for the inevitability aspect of the plot, we already know the personal computer becomes ubiquitous, we already know the social function of the internet is primary, we already know telephones end up in our pockets. But knowing the outcome of the technology in HCF doesn't make the ride to our "now" any less suspenseful, dramatic, and emotionally riveting, because this is a show about the people who got us there. It took freakishly inventive, insecure, visionary, malicious, humble, compassionate, delusional, brilliant, square peg, devoted, miserable, and optimistically malcontented people to do it. They questioned everything at a time when that was not a desirable workplace habit.
For there to be a tipping point in the 80s, you needed people with one foot in the past and the other in the future, to bridge the abyss between old business and new–people like HCF character John Bosworth, brought to life vibrantly and flawlessly by actor Toby Huss, whose Iowan nativism is hidden beneath his Texan character's accent. While speaking with Huss about the new season, I asked how he would describe the show:
Toby Huss: "In the absence of killing and zombies and such, sure, it's a workplace drama, but it's really a textured, nuanced, and measured look at how people interact, and this specific time in really recent American history, where there's a massive amount of change happening. It's also about how people get along with each other when it's time to work, and how they bounce in and out of each other's lives. These people simultaneously discovered this new technology and new things in themselves they didn't know were there. It's about how these emotionally new, nuanced things they found in themselves smash up against each other. I think that's a pretty potent combination–and it's fun to act."
That's where the possibility aspect of the show comes in: the types of people who shake things up inhabit the world of HCF. They're human progress, personified. These are the type of people who today dominate Silicon Valley, where the setting moves to in season three. It is telling that such a socially awkward demographic was responsible for connecting the world. In the 80s they were on the fringes and struggling to be taken seriously, but they were the ancestors of people like the founders of Google, another popular entity with an obscurely-referenced name, who turned that name into a verb. These are complicated and fascinating characters brought to life.
This is Really How It Was
I learned about people like this firsthand when I had the strange luck of being hired at a San Francisco startup in 2006, by Google's first Director of Business Development, Chris Skarakis. He had just left Google, where his parting project was digitizing the libraries of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Oxford. (Thanks, Chris.) I was just coming out of the first three years of motherhood and had missed an entire leap of technology, when I was hired and brought into orbit with this kind of visionary intelligence.
Suddenly I was immersed in a world of punk rock-listening, Stanford-educated programmers like the ones in HCF. They taught me basic computer code and spoke their mind in sky's-the-limit whiteboard brainstorming sessions. It caught me up quick and changed the way I thought about technology and business. I asked my former boss what kind of people it really took to innovate technology. He shared the story of how Google's company motto, "Don't be evil," came to be:
Chris Skarakis: "I was in the room for that one. A group of us were called together with HR people to come up with the company values and philosophies. Your typical stuff was brought up and listed out. Then one of the engineers, Paul B. said "don't be evil." Initially everyone sort of chuckled and brushed it off, but Paul wouldn't let it go until we all saw the wisdom in what he was saying. It was adopted, obviously, and became iconic for Google."
Technology has transformed the way we get the news, socialize, find work, bank, waste time, shop, date (and how the cowardly break up). Turkey's president recently used the iPhone's Facetime feature to quell a military coup by mobilizing its citizens to resist and take to the streets. They did. What makes the device you are reading this on even possible is the result of the work and vision of extraordinary nobodies with wild ideas, and the leverage and funding of ordinary somebodies who took a measured risk. HCF throws them all together in every shape and size, and watches as they all jockey for position, rarely realizing they have to fit together to complete the puzzle.
To some, the incessant refusal of some of the HCF characters to fit in and play nice might seem too convenient or "written," or clash with others seemingly out of reflex. You see it in both Joe MacMillan, the IBM-expatriate turned mercurial entrepreneur, (played as expertly as a chess game by Lee Pace) and upstart programmer Cameron Howe (an unpredictable and edgy role perfectly cast with Mackenzie Davis), So I asked another former Google friend, Eric Fredricksen, a staff engineer from the early days, what he noticed were the real-life personal qualities critical to bringing on real technological breakthroughs:
Eric Fredricksen: "The key to it all I would say is [Google founders] Larry and Serge's unwillingness to take expert opinions as gospel, which I think is rare. They're smart guys not standing on their egos too much, but when some impressive person told them "this is already figured out, it's this way," they'd puzzle it out themselves, sometimes on the spot, before accepting it, if at all. One blunt-ended example: everyone knew search wasn't worth much, but they–and the staff at Google–figured out how and when and why it was."
That's Joe and Cameron to a tee, and the same is seen to varying degrees in engineer Gordon Clark (portrayed with pitch-perfect neurotic nuance by Scoot McNairy, whom you alternately want to hug and punch), and later, in his wife, Donna Clark (whose potent chemistry of undervalued intelligence, insecurity, and an open heart is incarnated flawlessly by Kerry Bishe). There are no cartoon heroes and villains in HCF. Everyone takes turns being the underdog you're rooting for, and the one who's screwing your future up.
Although HCF is fiction, the heavily-researched show is based on fact. Co-creators, writers, and showrunners Chris Rogers and Chris Cantwell (collectively known as "the Chris's") were partly inspired by the Steve Jobs biography, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Soul of a New Machine," by Tracy Kidder. They also did exhaustive anecdotal research, and drew from personal experience. At the Brainstorm Tech conference, they spoke about the show's inception and philosophy (interview by Fortune Magazine's Michael Lev-Ram):
Christopher Cantwell: "The inspiration largely comes from my father. He started working on computers in the mid-1970s, answering an ad off the postboard in his high school, looking for punch card operators. He went to work for a computer company, and kind of graduated from there. By the early 80s things were really taking off in Texas, and he moved my entire family, including me at six weeks old, down to Dallas, and took a job at a firm very similar to [the fictitious] Cardiff Electric. He was a salesman, very much like Joe is, and he worked with sales engineers, very much like Gordon Clark. That dynamic is what informed that relationship early on."
Chris Rogers: "HCF tells you the story you didn't know about the rise of the personal computer–because if you can just google it and get the answer, then that's not a TV show worth watching. We want to bring you new information. That story is usually told through the lens of Silicon Valley, and two companies, Apple and Microsoft. Sure, we knew about the big figures, but there were a lot of people that contributed to the "are you a Mac or a PC" question. As we dug into the research, we looked for stories you couldn't find online, and we got to interview a lot of people who made big contributions to the personal computer, but were forgotten by history. These people were part of something that was not recognized in its time as very important, and now means a great deal, so that's a very fulfilling part of it."
This is not Mad Men with computers and Members Only jackets. The 80s were only thirty years ago, but for people who are never more than a few feet away from their cell phone and spend the bulk of their free time and work time on screens, we are oddly missing much reflection on the history of how we got to the party of now–especially asking who brought the keg and how they paid for it. Turns out it was not your average beer run.
As exciting as the zombies are in AMC Network sibling The Walking Dead, the characters in HCF face the more formidable enemies of real life: ignorance, lack of vision, fear of change, greed, and shortsightedness–including our own. These are more relevant threats to our daily lives than getting our faces eaten off (unless you live in Florida). HCF underscores the reality that it truly was a battle for the future–both internal and external–which is now a present we are experiencing both the fruits and consequences of.
These entrepreneurial renegades–both real and fictional–did not run around free and funded by virtue of their big ideas. It's not just the Teslas and Edison types that deliver the future. There are the nameless and uncredited middlemen, playing by ear, who see potential and connect the Teslas to the J.P. Morgans and the Googles and Facebooks to Sand Hill Road.
I learned about the venture capital beltway of Sand Hill Road in 2006, when my new tech startup boss, Chris, took me for a burger at a place called Buck's in Woodside, CA. It was an odd little place, with old computers and components serving as decor, along with a stuffed alligator, and scribbled-on napkins commemorating famous deals were displayed behind acrylic. Buck's became famous during the dot-com era for deals and ideas (like PayPal) seeded at these tables, between entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
I felt lucky to know someone who was an integral part of building something–like he did at Google in digitizing those libraries–that had literally transformed and unified the world with information in ways that would have enormous impact. All around me were bits of history that impacted the world so much, things I totally took for granted. HCF is like a TV version of Buck's–you need to sit down, tune in, and take a look around.
Besides venture capital, startups in the 80s needed old school business people, whether they liked it (and each other) or not. People like the unexpectedly unpredictable John Bosworth. From the pilot episode where he is the unquestioned boss who hires Joe MacMillan, to the moment he steps on the plane to Silicon Valley at the end of season two, he arguably changes the most over the seasons. His transformation parallels the tech industry's evolution from a top-down management, widget-selling industry to firebrand entrepreneurship peddling the invisible–speed, access, and community–which became the core components of the internet as we use it today.
Innovation and monetizing the invisible is risky, but, like PayPal and Google, can pay off big and maybe change the world. The Hollywood Hills are dotted with lavish houses built on risky ideas. You have to have the skill, guts, and vision to sell products and ideas that are close to inconceivable to investors and the public. We see ourselves in the familiar parts of people like John Bosworth, but how many of us would put our lives on the line in a gutsy bet like he did in season one? He had a lot to lose. Yet his risk–and its failure–was the tipping point, enabling new companies to emerge from the rubble of Cardiff Electric. Those are the kinds of people–and sacrifices–that enable innovation.
The Writing is Outstanding
Two of my favorite things about HCF are the character's tango with the inevitable and the unpredictable, and the wry but subtle wit peppered perfectly throughout the series. A standout in manifesting this is Toby Huss's Bosworth, whose stern AMC publicity photo doesn't capture the wit and sparks of levity he brings to the role. Part old school Texas businessman out of step with technology, and part prospecting visionary, Huss built a believable and endearing character out of what could have easily become a stereotype–and was almost a short-term role. Huss is that kind of character actor you want to see more of, and the show's producers, writers, and creators thought so, too:
Melissa Bernstein: "We adore his character so much. As written, we did not imagine him this way at all, but when we saw him in Toby's audition, we were all totally taken with it, and it changed everything about that character's trajectory."
Like Bosworth, Huss took a gutsy bet, portraying the no-nonsense boss with wit and charming complexity that may have otherwise been missed. I asked him how it came about:
Toby Huss: "Good old John Bosworth! It's funny, because I had no master plan, but the way the guys wrote it, I think they saw one thing in it, and I saw something totally different. I saw this really textured, sort of nuanced guy, who was really a couple years away from retirement, and then his world exploded. He had to think on his feet like never before. He really had a wonderful arc from the first season to this one. No one saw that arc, I think, until they started mining that territory, but I thought it was a great character that they had. They just needed somebody to come and flesh it out, maybe, and I got lucky enough to do that."
Developing that character differently based on an actor's interpretation also highlights the agility and talent of "the Chris's." They recognize opportunities and take chances–much like the tech industry characters they write about. Sometimes you see it in little ways, like the season three open, where they creatively harvest Toby Huss's experience as an uncanny and satirical Frank Sinatra (from his annual "Rudy Casoni" Christmas Show in L.A.) to perfect effect.
They also take very big chances, which is why HCF is the most feminist primetime drama on TV, without anyone noticing. The very same writing dexterity that brought us Bosworth's unique character is why the series is not a sausage party like HBO's Silicon Valley. That's good news for HFC–it means a longer runway and slower burn rate for the show. Then again, at least people know what Silicon Valley is roughly about.
Melissa Bernstein: "The first season of HCF centered around the Gordon and Joe partnership, but as the story evolved, Donna and Cameron gravitate towards each other, and form a business relationship based on something completely different. It gave us all these opportunities. There's a lot of mutual respect and trust, and that plays out differently than the Joe and Gordon partnership, which came together with a very different power dynamic. How does that work when it's in the vise of the technology world with all the pressures that come with success or failure?"
It would have been foolish of us not to take the opportunity to pursue Donna and Cameron. The writers didn't do it for the novelty of it or because the male leads weren't working, it's that these characters were so compelling, we wanted to spend as much time with them as we did with Joe and Gordon. I think a lot is made of it, and I think a lot should be. There are things still not right in our world between men and women and the inequality of pay, and there are issues that I think we're struggling with as a society. What we see on television and in movies is an important reflection and exploration of that, and we need to figure out a way to get it right.
Cameron's character drives the story forward in unexpected ways, where, at first, she explores complicated work relationship dynamics as the young female tech genius in a male-dominated workplace in season one. Then, as the boss, with Donna as female co-pilot in a world they create as they go along by season two. The differences are fascinating–and telling.
Season three continues the female-driven story, and the Chris's have enough confidence in their writing, the story, and the cast to not need overly-sexualized female leads as only love interests or crutches to hold the audience's gaze. This leaves the series with tons of uncharted territory so often neglected in American television, and they are stories relevant and interesting to everyone.
We don't say that a show is "male-led," or that an all-male rock band is a "guy band." The reverse is not true. HCF does not have token women, inserted in place of men. They are strong, yes, but also imperfect, nuanced, and fully developed characters. As revealed in the strange uproar over the female leads in the rebooted Ghostbusters, somehow the media and entertainment industry feel the need to apologize for or explain stories with prominently female actors, to those who simply don't get it. Coincidentally, Toby Huss had a small role in Ghostbusters, so I asked him about the film's backlash, and if that related at all to how people might perceive Halt's female-driven story. Here's his colorful response:
Toby Huss: "The backlash was so hilarious and so terrible–it reeked of awful mamby-pamby white privilege, just boys crying about more shit. It's all white boys, I guarantee–just dicky white boys whaling on the women, and then they're whaling on Leslie Jones. My lord, it was just crazy and awful."
But these are two very different things, that movie and this TV show. Halt is relatively new. The women are such richly drawn characters, they're acted so well by Kerry and Mackenzie, and the story is so compelling, so, it's a different thing. We're not raping the halcyon days of white boys or however these guys perceived they were being emasculated by women playing the Ghostbusters guys.
In HCF, Donna and Mackenzie–they're never talking about boobs–well, ok, they are sometimes–but they've got really progressive women characters on this show whose lives are not dependent on men. That's another reason why it's a special little show and not like most shows on TV. They don't go to pool parties and wear bikinis all the time. It's kind of fucking refreshing, don't you think?
Yes. Because the female characters were not written gender blind, either. They're not just "male-ish" female leads. Instead, the Chris's are cognizant of the differences in the way men and women think, live in the world, and are treated, and they brilliantly leveraged it into the story. This is why it's a captivating ride. You don't know where this is going, because no one has done it like this before. There is no obvious end point for any of them by the end of season two.
Melissa Bernstein: "I think there's a ton of misconceptions in the entertainment industry about whether people will show up to see stories that star women as much as they will to see stories that focus on a male actor. To my mind, if you tell a great story, it doesn't matter what the gender of the leads is, but we have to keep proving that, which is unfortunate. I'm very much up for that challenge, because I believe it. I think the proof is in the pudding. Season two of HCF is a great answer to that question. Can it be compelling? Hell, yeah! Watch the show."
In season one, engineer Donna Clark provides a simple but critical space-saving computer design element that her husband had been struggling with–so critical that it later gets stolen. Actress Kerry Bishe discusses her progressive role as Donna in a recent interview in Feminist Frequency:
Kerry Bishe: "I almost forget what a gift it is that these characters are so multifaceted that they can't be described in a single adjective. I'm very picky about the kinds of roles I want to play. Representation matters to me. People love to talk about "strong female characters," but that idea is so limiting. I like to think of female characters as complex, whole, and also fallible people. The things that they do badly, their flaws and deficiencies are as important as their skills and positive qualities. Women characters often operate on this single trajectory, but Donna really has had the room to grow and change and make mistakes. It's one of the biggest, fullest characters I've been able to play."
Finally, The 80s Look Like the 80s
The big favor Halt and Catch Fire does for us is rightly cast the 80s, not with garish cliche, but as the older brother who knew about the Clash way before you did. Whenever I see that period depicted on TV or in film, it's been a caricature–the fashion, the hairstyles, the music. Noticably, HCF's entire art department elicits the feel of the 80s in a way that I haven't seen on TV yet.
Melissa Bernstein: "We didn't want the era to be a sideshow. We wanted it to feel like real life and never take people out of the story. We want you connecting with characters and what's going on in their heads, the internal drama. It's critical. If you get lost in the cliches of the era, then we're really sending our audience down the wrong path. We worked with our really talented department heads (like Chris Brown, production designer) to make sure that it was all well-researched, and that it felt like real life at the time, from color palettes, to the products themselves, from the computers to the more domestic pieces."
Our costume designer (Kimberly Adams) picked fashion designers who lived through that era, and who have an affinity for it, like it meant something to them, and they really remembered the details of it, and wanted to see them come through in subtle ways, and worked with the cast to specifically reflect their characters in those choices. They did a really nice job.
I agree. When we were in Gordon and Donna's house, I felt like I was back in the home I grew up in. From the kitchen products, vintage computer components, macrame on the walls, and watching Gordon stop at a phone booth to make a call, I see so much familiarity, while simultaneously noticing how much has changed. What Gordon and Donna are behind on in domestic home fashions, they make up for in being far ahead of the curve in ideas–they just don't know it yet.
Melissa Bernstein: "The first two years of the show, the feeling was that Donna and Gordon were not people of the eighties. They were still cruising on the seventies–it takes time. Some people adapt immediately and get the newest iPhone when it shows up, have the newest shoes, and stay totally current, but for most of us it takes a while. Hairstyles and the interior design of your home, that's not something people change every year or two. Season three is a totally clean slate for us from a production design standpoint just because of the setting changing to Silicon Valley, with fresh eyes–production designer Chris Stearns, and costume designer Katherine Morrison."
The 80s delivered our future–in a Members Only jacket and a Gremlin at times, sure, but look what it brought to the party. Quite a feat for a show set in the 80s to be one of the most relevant on television. So why aren't more people watching it?
Why Doesn't Anyone Know About the Show?
Ratings-wise, HCF falls under the radar partly because it's not called Computer People, and doesn't feature relationships simplistic enough to be easily portrayed in a still picture on a billboard. But is the new season's promo photo of the cast standing around computers in an office with serious looks on their faces the only alternative? It looks like I'm walking into work late and everyone's mad at me. I don't want to go in there. Who would?
AMC Network's brilliance lies in its committed understanding that characters are the bond that keeps an audience tied to a series. They're not afraid to hang a show on a seemingly commercially unviable premise, like Breaking Bad, because they see great characters. They're adept at recognizing when to give shows more time, as they've done with HCF. But there seems to be a disconnect between the show and its promotion. It's being treated like Gordon was at Cardiff Electric. They didn't realize they had a computer genius in their midst until someone took the time to coax him and give him the attention and resources he needed. Where's Joe MacMillan when you need him?
I live in Los Angeles and pass by all the new show billboards, with dramatic pictures of aliens and international subterfuge. I understand that it's a challenge to promote an oddly-titled show with an internal struggle as dramatic, yet as invisible as the technology it is about. But honestly, is HCF really any different than M.A.S.H.?
It just seems like AMC was stumped by the title, shrugged, and moved on. If the name "Halt and Catch Fire" makes the show the TV equivalent of the impossibly-named band Einsturzende Neubauten, then so be it. They're both still fucking great. The smart ones will find it, but they shouldn't have to look so hard. Yes, it's a challenge to encapsulate HCF in a sentence, tagline or hashtag (or this would be a shorter article), but I think its appeal is more universal and important.
It's ironic, of course, that a show about people trying to innovate in technology would have trouble being innovatively publicized in the world of television, but that's part of what the show is about: sometimes you can be so good, so right, so ahead of the others, but you're still misunderstood, unappreciated, overlooked, your accomplishments ignored, and you're gunning a Mustang in neutral. It's a challenging and frustrating existence, full of drama, conviction and self-doubt. That's why it's so good. Of course, it's even more ironic that it's on the same network that brought everyone's favorite ad man, Don Draper, to life. How would he advertise the show?
Toby Huss: "We all love the show, and we love doing it, and we're all so invested in it, just because it's a great thing. It's one of those rare shows, and we all know that it's a privilege to work with these kinds of people, and the crew is really wonderful. You just want more people to watch it. I think people are starting to online. HCF is like a kid on the autism spectrum. It's a special child, and he needs a little special attention. You can't just put him in gen-pop and hope everything works out."
The members of the online community around HCF found each other organically, so technology's gift of social media is where you find the devotion of HCF's fans is in action. There they are, on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and fan blogs with titles like "Save Halt and Catch Fire" started by fans fearful of the show being canceled. Innovation always comes, it just depends on who gets to it first.
Why Halt and Catch Fire is Important
As kids scurry back to school, and adults list their annual regrets for their never-got-to-it summer plans, we're all wishing to be immersed in other realities, lives, and eras–our news can be too brutal, our politics too loud, our own lives too small. We may wonder how it all got this way. That's why I love HCF. It reverse engineers our everyday lives, spooling back to before computers and the internet went on their first real date. It takes our current technology, parsed into its components, and with impeccable acting, smartly attaches human context and story to each one. Though we know what is at stake, and which technology eventually wins out, the characters don't.
They don't know that in our present, we watch a man die as his girlfriend live streams the incident on Facebook, or that, in the unrest that ensued, more people died. They don't know that the image of a Syrian boy, pulled from the rubble, is instantly transmitted around the world and gets the attention of millions of Americans about a tragically overlooked conflict, and may impact decisions on military actions. I wrote this long-ass article about a television show because I think it's a really important series, raising important questions about our relationship to technology, to each other, the differences between the way men and women run things, and how that could be used for good, instead of, well, evil.
What are you reading this on–a computer or a phone? How do you know how much money you have in the bank? How will you tell your friend you're running late because you spent too much time on Facebook? Text? Email? Where do you spend the bulk of your social life? Online or with your friends and family?
We changed technology and technology changed us. The evolution of both changed our world. It begs the question of whether or not we are really more connected. Can we make the world a better place with technology and connection? These people thought so. That's the heart of this show, and why I think it's the most compelling and relevant show you could watch this year.
The series makes me wonder if we can be better stewards of the possibility they gave us, or do we have to type in (HCF) and start from scratch? The future is eternally determined by what is behind us. The series has an ongoing, permanent cliffhanger: what will we do with technology and what will it do to us?
Toby Huss: "You can't really be a citizen in the world, make plane reservations, go to dinner, do things, hang out, send text messages, and make phone calls without using a massive amount of technology every day. It's a great thing, but I still shut the phone off and go meandering on two lane roads. That's great to me, too. Not having information available is really nice–I like not knowing things, I like not being reachable all the time."
Is there anything else you'd like to say to people about the show?
Toby Huss: "Yeah, why aren't more fuckers watching this?"
On Sunday, June 12, Santa Monica Police arrested James Wesley Howell, 20, of Indiana. His car was found with long rifles, magazine clips, boxes of bullets, a rifle scope, and "chemicals capable of forming an improvised explosive device."
There it was on my Facebook feed this week: Trending: Prince. Why was Prince a trending topic when he'd been found dead a month ago? Then I learned his official cause of death had just been released: "Accidental Fentanyl toxicity." In other words, he unintentionally overdosed on a drug he was taking to treat chronic pain. After reading the comments on the various new Prince articles, it hit me: though Prince's body died of opioid overdose, the autopsy report may as well have said "death by ignorance and fear," both his own, and the public's.
If "death by ignorance and fear" sounds inflammatory and sensational, stop and think about it. Why on earth would anyone wait to get medical help for something that could kill them? Would you furtively seek treatment if you realized you had something potentially fatal? Would you wait until things were so bad that your life was literally falling apart and you were afraid you might die? No. You'd rightly engage in proactive self-care and get professional medical treatment, with no fear that anyone would proclaim you as weak-willed and morally bankrupt. You would do it with no fear that it might permanently damage your reputation, your career, or negatively affect your family. But that's not the case with addiction and mental health.
Because of his fear of what had become his "secret" getting out to the public, Prince passed off an emergency plane landing due to overdose as "the flu." The public's eyes were on him, and treatment that would have saved his life was delayed. Why? It is primarily the ignorance and fear of an addiction-shaming and tabloid culture that drives public figures to make such insane decisions. The press and public surely would have turned the very normal act of Prince seeking medical treatment for his condition into scandalous fodder, something the very private Prince–or anyone–would likely choose to avoid.
Most of the reactions to the cause of death news were disheartening to read, partly because I used to work for Prince, who was as straight an arrow as they come. I was 22 years old and got a gig as the production secretary for his second film, "Graffiti Bridge," shot at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota. I wasn't on set much, mostly working in the production office, which was on the main floor, right across from the elevator that led upstairs and to Prince's private quarters. That was usually where I saw him, stepping out of the elevator door in the morning. So when I heard that his body was found in the elevator, it was a jarring visual contrast to the spry cannon of energy that bounced out of that door every day in four inch heels.
I liked working at Paisley Park, it was a very professional environment, but also had a community feel to it, and I felt like I was a part of something. When George Clinton would do his scenes, he would ask me to watch his grandson for him and we got chatty over time. I was even able to get my brother a job on the film, doing security patrol. It seemed to me that Prince took the good will that Warner Bros. showed in building Paisley Park, very seriously, and passed it on to others. It was a not a glorified man-cave or over-priced party house. Prince ran the place like what it was–a world class production facility with a massive soundstage, recording studio, and performance space. From my observations, the partying took place offsite and did not involve Prince. (It was apparently in George Clinton's wheelhouse, however.)
I remember processing Prince's W-9 form for payroll and seeing that his legal first name really was Prince. "Prince Rogers Nelson," it read, and then his social security number. Prince was human–a person working hard for his paycheck just like everybody else. I remember him taking some actors into the hallway to teach them complicated dance moves for an upcoming scene–again, in 4-inch heels. Prince was a petite guy, but he wore those heels well, and could move nimbly in them, and he seemed to be moving all the time. I can't help but fast forward now to the ensuing decades of performance and the toll it obviously took on his body, leading to his double hip replacement surgery in 2010. The surgery failed to relieve his pain, and so his long-term chronic pain treatment began.
That job was my first experience in major studio film production, and I learned a ton. I was grateful for the opportunity and the stories I had from it. The last time I saw Prince was when he threw the film's wrap party at Paisley Park. Everyone was invited and could bring guests, from production assistants on up, and were treated by our host as equals.
At that time, I had only just begun teaching myself how to play bass, so I would never have believed that in years to come we'd both have stars on the wall outside of the Minneapolis rock club he made famous, First Avenue. His, of course, for being Prince, and mine for my years as the bassist in Minneapolis band Babes in Toyland. I've played numerous gigs at that club, and we shot a music video there, but it was an indescribable honor for our band to be on the same wall as him.
Though Prince and I may have both been musicians who shared a city, I am sure as hell not drawing parallels in our careers. I have not gone on to sell 100 million records like he did. And I didn't blow people's minds playing the Superbowl. I can't dance in 4-inch heels. I can't write hit songs as easily as jotting down a shopping list. Nor was it my time working for him that feeds my empathy about his death and the public's reaction to it. What I have in common with Prince are my personal experiences with chronic pain and addiction. I'm a recovering addict 12 years sober, but an addict nonetheless, and I deal with pain daily. Glancing at comments like "He did it to himself," "Surprise, another rock star drug addict," and other victim-blaming attitudes, angers and upsets me.
I know what it's like to live in chronic pain. I've survived four car accidents, none of which I caused, surprisingly. Each one incrementally worsened my neck pain to the point that after the third one in 2011, I agreed to have cervical spine surgery to relieve it. Surgery was risky, and not a quick fix, but I couldn't imagine living in pain like that any longer. It also involved an extremely long recovery–and being on painkillers most of that time. I struggled with them, but it was an unavoidable part of my treatment.
My doctor knew I was an addict, but it was the only option for treating the inevitable and severe pain–and severe it was. Sure, it killed the pain as I recovered, but it also gave me a wonderful feeling–peaceful and anxiety-free–an instant vending machine happiness, which, for someone with Depression, is delightful. That is what I struggled not to cling to. That, I knew, was addiction. I was weaned off of them, and thankfully I lived pain-free for four years. Last year, another accident brought it back. Though it is chronic, the pain is not as severe as before, so I am able to avoid opioids. It is nothing like the pain Prince was enduring. I can't imagine living with severe pain for the rest of my life, like he was facing.
In the case of prescription opioids, these people are not addicts looking for a high, but for relief from their pain. Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Even when taken in small amounts, it can be fatal. Neuroscientists know that addiction is a brain disease, but most people don't. There is a huge gap in the public's understanding of it as a medical condition, not a choice or moral failing, but a progressive, fatal disease.
Though my original addiction was to another substance, it almost killed me, as it does so many. Prince wasn't as lucky as me. My incident happened two blocks away from a hospital. I was saved, the ER doctor later told me, by how quickly I got to the hospital. Five minutes later and it would have been curtains, as she put it. It was shortly afterwards that I got sober.
Prince may not have been happy about the need for addiction treatment, but he knew it was time, and he had a close enough call on the plane to ponder the thought that his addiction could end his life. Clearly, he wanted to live. But he didn't want anyone to know. Sadly, addiction is particularly lethal in the case of performing artists with egos and identities whose destruction could mean the end of their careers. Hide it, hide it, hide it. Hide it from you. Hide it from us.
From my perspective, lumping Prince into the bin of rock stars done in by overdose, dismissing the tragedy as another example of excess and bad choices, is not only inaccurate, it perpetuates dangerous attitudes and ignorance about chronic pain and addiction. Every medical treatment has inherent risks. So why the shame?
We didn't disavow David Bowie for treating his cancer with chemotherapy, though the side effects made him sick in many ways. Bowie was a patient seeking relief, and that's what Prince was doing, too. In his case, it was chronic pain. The most common treatment for that calls for a dependency on prescription painkillers. It's not like he became addicted by surprise or chance. It is a known side effect of treating pain with painkillers. The management of that pain is tricky business, as pain is measured by self-report and not observation. Where I believe mistakes were made is in secrecy and shame, which our culture demands in exchange for perceived indulgence in narcotics, prescribed or not.
The tragedy that treatment had been delayed and sought through back channels to avoid detection–that is what the focus should be on. Shaming for the treatment of addiction and mental illness is everywhere, and its impact is very real. In my own first year of sobriety, I met a young woman in AA who, like me, also suffered from clinical Depression and was on prescribed anti-depressants. Unfortunately, her sponsor was one of those people who believe that ANY drug is bad and that you should be clean of all drugs no matter what. This is not an attitude that AA as an organization shares, in fact, it explicitly encourages members to seek outside professional medical and psychiatric help if needed, including taking prescribed medication. Unfortunately, I think a pretty broad swath of the public believes the same thing–that being dependent on a prescription for your well-being is somehow weak and wrong. But tell that to a diabetic who takes insulin, or the chronic pain sufferer who takes opioids, then tell it to this girl, who listened to this ignorant woman, went off her meds, and killed herself about a month later.
I've experienced the shaming and ignorance many times, and was once let go from a music project partly because someone said I was "not really sober" because I took prescribed psychiatric medication for Major Depressive Disorder. It is the dangerous attitudes of people like that, and people like the misguided woman at the AA meeting that contribute to the deadliness of addiction.
Both the broader medical community and public turn a blind eye to the plight of those in chronic pain, and the majority deny that their inevitable opioid addictions are a progressive, potentially fatal disease worthy of compassion, treatment, and medical resources. Resources like treatment with the drug Suboxone (aka Buprenorphine), which is a narcotic used to treat opiate addiction for not only heroin addicts, but the chronic pain sufferer, whose treatment relies on opioids to live their lives. They aren't asking for addiction. It's a side effect of their treatment and it can be lethal. The man who found Prince in the elevator wrote about the limited access to Suboxone both in Minnesota and the nation in treatment for opioid addiction.
Prince's pain management treatment, like so many others, had led to long-term physical dependence on prescription painkillers, which in turn evolved into an addiction, which he was actively seeking help for. What's the difference between dependence and addiction?
According to the National Institutes of Health:
Physical dependence can happen with the chronic use of many drugs—including many prescription drugs, even if taken as instructed. Physical dependence in and of itself does not constitute addiction, but it often accompanies addiction. This distinction can be difficult to discern, particularly with prescribed pain medications, for which the need for increasing dosages can represent tolerance or a worsening underlying problem, as opposed to the beginning of abuse or addiction.
Addiction—or compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences—is characterized by an inability to stop using a drug; failure to meet work, social, or family obligations; and, sometimes (depending on the drug), tolerance and withdrawal.
It's not like some people get addicted to these drugs and others don't. Anyone taking them for longer than a few days becomes physically dependent on these drugs. That, right now, is the best the medical community has to offer for chronic pain management.
To me, addiction-shaming is akin to rape victim-shaming. Both inhibit disclosure, reporting, and ultimately, getting help. In one case, it allows the perpetrators to accrue more victims, and in the case of addiction, accrue more casualties. Ignorance has a price, and too often, it is someone's life. Every derogatory comment made about Prince for his chronic pain and addiction is like another nail in his coffin, or the next friend, or the next brother, or sister, or son, or daughter.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the cost of substance abuse costs the US more than $700 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity, and health care. It's not going away. Prescription drug use has the second fastest-growing use rate among 8th through 12th graders. (Marijuana is number one, and I'd be curious if that had more to do with access and legalization rather than a growing trend.)
So more kids are doing it, more people are dying, it's costing us more money, yet so many intelligent people I know roll their eyes at calling addiction and alcoholism a disease, or dismiss 12-step recovery groups as cults, or leave negative comments about a dead rock star who asked for help on his last day on earth.
I'm sorry Prince is gone because he was a musical genius and masterful performer. But I am more haunted by the prospect of what a world with a sober Prince in recovery might have been like. Maybe he'd be an advocate for the need for alternatives in chronic pain management, or the need for access to addiction treatment. Maybe he wouldn't talk about it, maybe he'd stay "anonymous," but maybe people would see that recovery is possible. Maybe they'd start to have compassion for people suffering with the afflictions instead of calling for their incarceration and damnation. Maybe they'd speak up when someone was ranting cluelessly about someone else's addiction.
I don't know. But I'm still here somehow, and I don't stay quiet, or anonymous, because I'm happy to be sober and wish more people got to experience it. That's just me, and though I am sometimes criticized for it, I know that my life was transformed when I stopped living in shame and silence about my medical disorders. I hope that if there's anything to learn from Prince's unnecessary death, it's that we could all use a more open mind and some compassion when discussing someone else's problems. As Prince said, "It's a hurtful place, the world, in and of itself. We don't need to add to it. And we're in a place now where we all need one another, and it's going to get rougher." I agree.
Maureen Herman, author and musician, is currently writing her first book, It's a Memoir, Motherfucker on Macmillan's Flatiron Books imprint, due out 2017. She was the bassist of Babes in Toyland from 1992 until 1996 and from 2014 to mid-2015. She lives in Los Angeles with her amazing daughter. She's also known to be activist-y.